When I was nine, my siblings locked me in the family car in a game that was supposed to be goofy and fun. Instead, it turned out to be the day I discovered I had great anxiety that kept showing up whenever I felt cornered in tight spaces.
The car seemed to close in on me while the air grew scant and my chest constricted. As my siblings rushed to get me out of the car, I was gripped by an intense fear of suffocation. Ever since that traumatic childhood event, I have had an irrational fear of enclosed spaces.
Watching the five-person crew huddled in the cramped, dimly lit, and submerged Titan made me panic over the idea of being trapped in a box miles underwater, slowly suffocating with no help in sight. And so have other individuals worldwide watching the Titan submersible disaster unfold, many of whom have had to confront feelings of claustrophobia and suffocation anxiety.
That is because the uncertainty and fear associated with confined spaces and the potential threat of suffocation can profoundly impact one’s mental and emotional well-being. As a viewer, your Titan sub anxiety is most likely a result of empathy for the crew that sadly didn’t make it out alive.
Here, we look at the clinical definition and causes of claustrophobia and how you or your loved ones can cope with common triggers.
Claustrophobia is characterized as a specific phobia. Specific phobias generally refer to intense and extreme fear of objects or situations that pose little to no threat. This condition is very real to people with specific phobias and can interfere with daily functioning. To understand claustrophobia, let’s first define the term.
What is Claustrophobia?
Claustrophobia is the fear of confined spaces. Claustrophobia can range from mild discomfort in a crowded room to a full-blown panic attack in a confined area or a small space. People with claustrophobia often experience panic attacks, a rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, sweating, and a strong desire to escape the confined space.
What Causes Claustrophobia?
For most people who develop claustrophobia, it starts in early childhood after going through a traumatic event, such as a prolonged duration in a tight space or getting stuck in small areas like an elevator.
Early childhood trauma accounts for most cases of extreme claustrophobia. Although in some instances, claustrophobia can be hereditary. The National Health Service confirms that a gene defect, Gpm6a, correlates with a higher likelihood of developing a fear of confined spaces.
Other contributing factors include the size of the amygdala, the part of our brain that controls anxiety. A relatively overactive amygdala could lead to higher chances of developing claustrophobia.
Symptoms of Claustrophobia
Claustrophobia symptoms can be either emotional or physical. Emotional symptoms include intense fear and overwhelming anxiety that could stem from a fear of suffocating, fainting, losing control, or even dying.
Physical symptoms resemble a panic attack. They include difficulty breathing, hot flashes, dizziness, and numbness or tingling. These symptoms manifest in confined spaces, such as MRI machines or crowded places, and range from manageable to emergency.
Effects of Claustrophobia
Severe claustrophobia can impede normal life and significantly lower the quality of life for the affected individual.
Impaired Daily Functioning
People with claustrophobia can experience impaired daily functioning due to avoiding situations that may place them in confined areas. These avoidances could be as significant as not entering board rooms or small offices, impacting their work lives.
Severe fear of confined spaces causes emotional distress as claustrophobics grapple with anxiety and panic attacks. The fear of triggering the phobia can lead to a dread of participating in everyday life activities, such as using the elevator.
Difficulty With Travel
An intense fear of tight spaces may make travel difficult, as cars, planes, and subways can be too packed for comfort.
Suffocation Anxiety in Relation to Claustrophobia
With claustrophobia comes intense anxiety about getting trapped or even crushed in confined spaces. Sometimes, as with my childhood experience, the enclosed space may seem to run out of air. This irrational fear can trigger suffocation anxiety.
However, most people with a specific phobia have a reaction that is disproportionate to any actual danger. But as with many particular phobias, claustrophobia feels real and can be debilitating and emotionally draining.
Professional Help to Overcome Claustrophobia and Suffocation Anxiety
Claustrophobia is treated by professionals using different techniques that include:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
CBT stands for cognitive behavioral therapy. It is a popular and highly effective talk therapy for depression and anxiety. CBT aims to change how claustrophobics think and behave toward triggers. This approach includes methods such as facing the fear instead of avoiding it, using problem-solving skills to manage a panic attack, and learning to explore the phobia to understand its origin and the most effective way to address it.
Exposure therapy gradually and repetitively exposes claustrophobics to triggers in a controlled and supportive environment. Individuals are then guided in managing triggers and developing effective coping mechanisms. Exposure therapy ultimately aims to eliminate anxiety caused by confined spaces.
Specific treatments involve “flooding” the individual with triggers. For example, a session may include spending several hours in a closed car. This method is more extreme and employs facing the fear of confined spaces head-on. Flooding therapy is not for everyone, but it is highly effective in calming anxieties and equipping individuals with better control of their triggers.
How Can I Cope With Claustrophobia?
Living with an intense and irrational fear of confined spaces can negatively impact your daily life. Fortunately, there are simple exercises you can do and changes you can make to take back control of your life.
1. Tell Someone You Trust
You don’t have to tackle suffocation anxiety or fear of confined spaces alone. Talk to someone you trust, such as a parent or a caregiver. A sympathetic ear can help you feel less alone and supported during difficult times.
2. Use the PIE Method: Pause, Inhale, and Exhale
With severe claustrophobia, everyday tasks may become challenging. When you feel triggered, use the PIE method: pause, inhale, and exhale. It is a simple breathing technique that allows you to stay in control of your reaction. It may be hard at first, but breathing exercises coupled with other coping mechanisms are highly effective in helping individuals keep their composure.
3. Join a Local Support Group
A community of people grappling with the same phobia as you can be a rich source of encouragement and coping tips. Many local groups, both online and offline, provide a great support system when things get tough.
4. Practice Healthy Living
Practicing self-care and stress management techniques goes a long way in enabling you to handle any unforeseen triggers. Getting enough sleep, exercising, and taking your daily vitamins are simple ways to practice healthy living. Additionally, identifying triggers and understanding your responses to them can help develop a sense of control that can help when working on overcoming claustrophobia.
Where to Get Help
There are several resources to help people with claustrophobia develop practical management skills to better deal with suffocation anxiety and other emotional stressors that come with the phobia.
The Mental Health Connection (MHC) of Tarrant County provides an extensive list of local hotlines that assist with claustrophobia and related anxiety.
Additionally, there are more hotlines, such as the Youth Crisis Hotline, a 24-hour hotline for any crisis — from pregnancy to drugs to depression. If you are working toward overcoming claustrophobia and suffocation anxiety, reach them at 1-800-448-4663 or text “DESERVE” to 741-741.