Phobias are anxiety disorders that can develop with some frequency, and one of the most common is claustrophobia. Scientific studies state that between 2% and 5% of the population suffers from this type of phobia, which is the intense and irrational fear of being trapped in an enclosed place and from which the person thinks he/she will not be able to get out.
Phobic disorders can cause great discomfort for the person who suffers them, and can affect his or her daily life in different ways. For example, by not being able to get on the elevator, not taking the subway to work, or not being willing to undergo a CT scan. People who suffer from this condition avoid situations that trigger the phobia and cause them intense anxiety.
In this article we will analyse claustrophobia by Ignasi Llorach, general health psychologist at the Mensalus Institute in Barcelona, one of the most prestigious clinics in Spain, and an expert in the treatment of phobic disorders.
What is claustrophobia?
Claustrophobia belongs to the group of specific phobias , which also includes other irrational fears such as aerophobia (or fear of flying) or arachnophobia (or fear of spiders).
“It is an anxiety disorder that affects a person when exposed to closed spaces: small rooms without ventilation, elevators, basements, tunnels, etc. In general, people who suffer from claustrophobia experience irrational fear in any situation involving closure, restriction or confinement, because they think they will not be able to get out or will run out of air, i.e. they will not be able to breathe. People with claustrophobia can also feel great discomfort in places where there are large crowds of people,” explains Llorach.
While some specific phobias are not necessarily disabling because people who suffer from them tend to avoid what frightens them, or it is difficult for them to encounter the feared stimulus in their usual environment (for example, coulrophobia or fear of clowns), other phobias can lead to situations that generate discomfort more frequently , as in the case of claustrophobia.
Some individuals may refuse a job because of the inability to travel by train or car for relatively long periods or may avoid going to the movies with their partner because of the discomfort they feel when they are in a dark room, where they automatically and compulsively look for exits.
Causes of this phobia
“Most phobias occur as a result of a traumatic event in childhood,” says Llorach, “although the onset can come at any time in life, where the person learns by association (classical conditioning) that closed spaces cause negative consequences.
A famous research carried out by Lars-Gran found that claustrophobia usually starts in childhood, and the common experiences that can trigger this pathology are: being locked in a dark room and not finding the door or the light switch, putting your head between two bars and then not being able to get it out, being locked in a closet, falling into a pool full of water without knowing how to swim or getting lost among a crowd and not finding the parents.
However, “learning does not always take place through direct experience, but it is also possible through observation,” says Llorach.
On the other hand, according to Seligman’s theory of preparation , we are biologically predisposed to suffer from phobias, since we associate more easily certain stimuli with negative responses because these favored our survival.
Phobic disorders are constituted by primitive and non-cognitive associations, which are not easily modified by logical arguments. This theory does not assume that phobias are innate, but that the individual has an innate capacity to learn phobic reactions .
Signs and Symptoms
Claustrophobia can manifest itself in different situations , and the person suffering from this phobia can have different reactions. For example, entering a room and checking the place where the exits are, in order to be near them. He or she may also avoid driving the car at “rush hour” so as not to get stuck in a traffic jam.
When a person has a phobic disorder, avoidance behaviors are present to reduce the discomfort and anxiety that characterize this disorder.
In summary, people with claustrophobia have the following symptoms:
- Extreme anxiety and fear of the presence or imagination of the phobic stimulus.
- Avoidance behaviour.
- Thoughts of the person running out of air.
- Thoughts of imminent death.
- Hyperventilation .
- Accelerated heartbeat.
- Chest pain or tightness.
- Dizziness, nausea, dizziness and headaches.
Treatments and therapy
If you suffer from claustrophobia or any other type of phobia, Ignasi Llorach reminds you that “it is possible to overcome the phobia with the right psychological treatment, and it is important to know that you are not alone, but that many people experience this type of phobia at some time in their lives and manage to overcome it. Besides, you don’t have to suffer it alone. Communicate your fears, because talking about it is very important to accept that you are suffering from this fear.
Psychological therapy is the best option to leave behind this irrational fear. There are many types of psychotherapy, but research has concluded that one of the most effective is cognitive behavioural therapy, which aims at intervention focused on changes in mental processes (thoughts, beliefs, emotions…) and in the behaviours that the person carries out and that can be maladaptive and cause suffering.
Relaxation techniques or exposure techniques are two widely used methodologies in the treatment of phobic disorders. Specifically, the most commonly used exposure technique is systematic desensitization, which consists of gradually exposing the patient to the phobic stimulus and promotes the most useful coping skills. Mindfulness has also been shown to be highly effective in treating all types of anxiety disorders.
In extreme cases, pharmacological treatment (mainly anxiolytics) can be applied; however, never as the only therapeutic option but in combination with psychological therapy.
If you wish to receive psychological assistance for the treatment of a phobia or any other problem related to mental health and wellbeing, you can find the contact details of the Mensalus Clinic by clicking here.