Claustrophobia is defined as the irrational fear of confined spaces. Like any phobia, the severity of claustrophobia can vary widely from person to person. Some people may experience symptoms in small rooms, crawl spaces, crowds or other enclosed situations; these people might find discomfort on amusement park rides such as roller coasters that use secure restraints, MRI chambers and other medical testing can also be difficult or impossible for people who suffer from claustrophobia.
Fortunately, the answer to the question “can claustrophobia be treated?” is yes, it can. The treatment may vary between sufferers, and this is mostly due to the type and severity of the symptoms, however, there are different medical approaches, as well as guidelines for self-help that can help you overcome this phobia.
The first step to overcoming claustrophobia is recognizing the symptoms and panic attacks when they occur. If you have felt anxious in the last six months about being in a confined space or crowded place; or if you have avoided confined spaces and crowded places, it is likely that you are affected by claustrophobia. Most people with a phobia are fully aware that they have one. Many people live with claustrophobia without having it formally diagnosed and take great care to avoid confined spaces.
Claustrophobia can be presented as panic attacks, and such manifestation is common among people with claustrophobia. They can be very frightening and distressing and symptoms often occur without warning.
A panic attack is recognized by the following physical reactions:
- Hot Flashes or Chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Choking sensation
- Rapid heartbeat
- Chest pain or feelings of tightness in the chest
- A sensation of butterflies in the stomach
- Headaches or dizziness
- Feeling faint, numbness or pins and needles
- Dry mouth
- A need to use the bathroom
- Ringing in your ears
- Confusion or disorientation
Individuals who suffer with severe phobias such as claustrophobia experience psychological symptoms that include:
- Fear of losing control
- Fear of fainting
- Overwhelming anxiety and uncertainty
- Feelings of dread
- Fear of dying
How is it diagnosed?
Claustrophobia is diagnosed by a psychologist or psychiatrist. The patient usually visits the doctor’s office due the symptoms of claustrophobia, or the consultations could be originally about another anxiety problem or phobia. The psychologist will ask for a description of the symptoms and what triggers them so he/she can determine the type and severity of the patient’s phobia.
In order to give the definite diagnosis of claustrophobia, the psychologist needs to rule out other anxiety disorders or phobias, such as cleithrophobia (fear of being trapped).
There are standardized methods and tests which can help determine the type and level of phobia in each patient. Such methods are the “Claustrophobia questionnaire” and the “Claustrophobia Scale”. The questionnaire has been proven as a helpful way of identifying the symptoms of claustrophobia. It is especially useful in determining whether the patient’s anxiety is driven by a fear of suffocation or restriction.
If you are in doubt or if you have already been diagnosed with claustrophobia, there are numerous ways in which you can help yourself and alongside with the help of professionals overcome your fears.
Claustrophobia can be successfully treated and cured by gradually being exposed to the situation that causes your fear. This is known as desensitization or self-exposure therapy. You could try this yourself (read some self-help techniques), or with the help of a professional. Facing your fears in a gradual manner can help you overcome them and teach yourself how to react in future situations. Once you decide that you want to overcome your phobia, you can make a list of “scary situations” and start overriding them gradually. You can start with the least scary situation and continue with the scarier ones. By this step-by-step exposure you won’t worsen your fears, but rather you will build confidence and you even may start enjoying them.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often very effective for people with phobias. CBT is a type of counseling that explores your thoughts, feelings and behavior to develop practical ways of effectively dealing with the phobia. This is usually the first-line treatment for specific phobia. Since it is harder to change the way we feel, compared to our reactions. This therapy focuses to changing how we feel and the way react in stressful situations.
Pharmacological Therapy helps manage the anxiety symptoms, however, it does not deal with the problem itself. Health care professionals may use drug therapy if other interventions have not provided satisfactory results, and it is usually considered as second line treatment, especially in phobias.
Relaxation Exercises such as taking deep breaths, meditating and doing muscle-relaxing exercises are effective at dealing with negative thoughts and anxiety.
Natural medicine or homeopathic medicines are an option that some patients say help in managing panic and anxiety. Natural products usually help with the symptoms of anxiety, and have calming effect on patients. Some natural supplements which are proven to work in clinically controlled trials are: kava, lavender oil, passion flower etc. Products such as KalmPro are a mixture of clinically proven natural supplements that effective combat anxiety.
Coping with a panic attack
If you are experiencing a panic attack, If possible, you should stay where you are. The panic attack could last up to an hour, so, if you are driving, you may need to pull over and park where it is safe to do so. Do not rush to a place of safety.
During the attack, remind yourself that the frightening thoughts and sensations are a sign of panic and will eventually pass. Focus on something that is non-threatening and visible, such as the time passing on your watch, or items in a supermarket.
The symptoms of a panic attack normally peak within 10 minutes and most attacks will last between five minutes and half an hour.