Claustrophobia is the irrational fear of confined spaces. It affects about 10% of the UK population.

Some people with claustrophobia only react with mild anxiety when in a confined space, while others experience severe anxiety or have a panic attack.

The most common experience of claustrophobia is a feeling or fear of losing control.

Many different situations or feelings can trigger claustrophobia. Even thinking about certain situations without exposure to them could be a trigger. Some examples of common triggers include:

  • lifts
  • tunnels
  • tube trains
  • revolving doors
  • public toilets
  • cars with central locking
  • car washes
  • changing rooms in shops
  • hotel rooms with sealed windows
  • planes

If you have felt anxious during the last six months about being in a confined space or crowded place, or if you have avoided confined spaces and crowded places for this reason, it is likely that you are affected by claustrophobia.

Physical symptoms

Panic attacks are common among people with claustrophobia. They can be very frightening and distressing and symptoms often occur without warning.

As well as overwhelming feelings of anxiety, a panic attack can also cause:

  • sweating
  • trembling
  • hot flushes or chills
  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • a choking sensation
  • rapid heartbeat
  • chest pain or a feeling of tightness in the chest
  • a sensation of butterflies in the stomach
  • nausea
  • headaches and dizziness
  • feeling faint
  • numbness or pins and needles
  • dry mouth
  • a need to go to the toilet
  • ringing in your ears
  • feeling confused or disorientated

Psychological symptoms

People with severe claustrophobia may also experience psychological symptoms such as:

  • fear of losing control
  • fear of fainting
  • feelings of dread
  • fear of dying

Getting help

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.

However, getting help from your GP and a specialist with expertise in behavioural therapy, such as a psychologist, can often be beneficial.

Claustrophobia can be successfully treated and cured by gradually being exposed to the situation that causes your fear. This is known as desensitisation or self-exposure therapy. You could try this yourself (read some self-help techniques), or with the help of a professional. 

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is often very effective for people with phobias. CBT is a type of counselling that explores your thoughts, feelings and behaviour to develop practical ways of effectively dealing with the phobia.

Speak to your GP to find out if CBT would be suitable for you and whether it is available on the NHS in your area. Read more about accessing therapy on the NHS.

Charities and self-help groups

Charities such as Anxiety UK offer support to people with claustrophobia.

Self-help groups are a useful way of meeting others with similar experiences and sharing ways of coping. For example, you could join the Agoraphobia, Claustrophobia, Anxiety and OCD Support Group on Facebook.

Coping with a panic attack

If possible, you should stay where you are during a panic attack. 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.

Read more advice about coping with a panic attack.

What causes claustrophobia?

Many cases of claustrophobia are caused by a traumatic event experienced early in childhood. 

For example, adults may develop claustrophobia if, as a child, they were:

  • trapped or kept in a confined space
  • bullied or abused

Claustrophobia can also be triggered by unpleasant experiences or situations, such as turbulence when flying or being stuck in a tube tunnel between stations.

Sometimes, children with a parent who had claustrophobia may become claustrophobic themselves, by associating confined spaces with the adult’s anxiety and with feeling helpless to comfort the person they loved.

‘I had never experienced claustrophobia before’

Andrea’s experience: the Channel Tunnel

“All I could see was metal. Above us, and to both sides, walls were closing in. Stuck in a row of cars and surrounded by a safety cage, I would soon be under the sea. No way out.

“A fireball of terror ripped upwards from my belly. I screamed and fumbled frantically for the door handle as another metal grid came down around the vehicle behind us.

“I clambered out into the train compartment – a cage within a cage within a cage, to my mind – in a state of total agitation, desperate to escape.

“I had never experienced claustrophobia before. I collapsed in tears, my heart racing, breathing wrecked, mind cleared of everything except an appalling sense of dread. ‘I’m a psychotherapist’, I thought. ‘I should be able to cope’.”

Taken from The Daily Telegraph March 3 2008: Trapped… Then I discovered that I was claustrophobic