Ever stepped into an overcrowded subway and felt the world closing in on you? While this reaction to a cluttered or enclosed space is normal to some extent, claustrophobia takes this fear to irrational levels. People with claustrophobia have a deep, entrenched fear of small or confined spaces, and of being trapped in a place with no visible exit, as in a lift, airplane, or even a crowded room. This fear often manifests as a panic attack, accompanied by an increased heartbeat, profuse sweating, dizziness, and, often, some form of emotional expression such as crying.
Those who suffer from any phobia know how debilitating the sheer panic and fear can feel. Claustrophobics may find themselves unable to tolerate elevators or crowded subways, or may even have a panic attack while undergoing scans such as an MRI.1
Causes Of Claustrophobia
The reasons for claustrophobia can be broadly categorized into two –biological causes and conditioning.
The amygdala is the region in the brain that controls how we react to adverse situations. This center decides whether we fight off a crisis or flee from it. People with panic disorders have been found to have significantly smaller amygdala volume, and this triggers extreme anxiety and overreaction in a trying situation.2
A person may also develop claustrophobia because of the way they have been conditioned by some life experience, often in childhood. For instance, a child trapped in a room or a closet and unable to escape – even if it’s just for a few minutes – may develop claustrophobia. Similarly, for a child is separated from a parent in a strange place or during rush hour, the few minutes of blind panic and fear can be a sufficient trigger for claustrophobia. The situation itself might not have been life-threatening, but the person associates it with panic, helplessness, and anxiety, and therefore begin to fear it.3
Treatment for claustrophobia focuses on tackling the fear itself and the anxiety and stress that accompany it. There are several steps you can take under the guidance of a professional healthcare provider to beat claustrophobia.
Counseling or talking to a professional counselor about your fears is often the first approach to treating phobias. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is also used to help patients deal with their fears objectively. In this method, talking about the stressor, preferably in a group setting, is used to help people overcome their fears and anxieties.[/ref]Anxiety Disorders, The National Institute of Mental Health.[/ref]
For people who are strongly against facing the fear-triggering situations in real life, Virtual Reality Therapy is proving to be a godsend. In a controlled environment, say in a doctor’s office, you’ll be exposed to virtual situations that generally scare you. Repeatedly facing these scenarios, albeit in a virtual environment, has shown to help overcome claustrophobia.4
In the case of phobias, medication is generally prescribed only when the other approaches aren’t proving to be fruitful. Classes of medicines called benzodiazepines and beta-blockers are used to suppress the symptoms of an anxiety attack. These medicines, however, do not treat claustrophobia itself.
Stress is the other aspect claustrophobics need to address. When we face a stimulus that is disturbing, peptide hormones in the body signal the release of cortisol, the stress hormone. This hormone is responsible for both the short-term effects of stress such as a lack of focus as well as the chronic ones such as a decrease in immunity.5 When the situation gets out of hand, as in the case of a panic attack in phobias, stress can pose a serious risk.
Learning stress management techniques and meditation can calm a person in situations that trigger a panic attack. Stress management is unique to each person – from counting using beaded strings and taking full, deep breaths to using a stress ball, there’s a host of techniques you can try to see what works for you.
The Ayurvedic therapy of Shirodhara, the process of gently dripping medicated oils on the forehead, is also known to bring benefits similar to meditation in stress management, helping a person feel calm and more in control.9 Before trying Shirodhara, be sure to discuss your fears with the practitioner so they know what makes you uncomfortable.
|↑1||Absar, L. “Claustrophobia in magnetic resonance imaging.” The Canadian journal of medical radiation technology/CAMRT 24, no. 3 (1993): 115-116.|
|↑2||Hayano, Fumi, Motoaki Nakamura, Takeshi Asami, Kumi Uehara, Takeshi Yoshida, Tomohide Roppongi, Tatsui Otsuka, Tomio Inoue, and Yoshio Hirayasu. “Smaller amygdala is associated with anxiety in patients with panic disorder.” Psychiatry and clinical neurosciences 63, no. 3 (2009): 266-276.|
|↑3||Matthew D. Jacofsky, Psy.D., Melanie T. Santos, Psy.D., Sony Khemlani-Patel, Ph.D. & Fugen Neziroglu, Ph.D. of the Bio Behavioral Institute, edited by C.E. Zupanick, Psy.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D, Paired Association and Classical Conditioning, Community Counselling Services.|
|↑4||Botella, C_, R. M. Baños, C. Perpina, H. Villa, Mu Alcaniz, and A. Rey. “Virtual reality treatment of claustrophobia: a case report.” Behaviour research and therapy 36, no. 2 (1998): 239-246.|
|↑5||The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis, Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science, Michael Randall, February 3, 2011.|
|↑6||Bhattacharyya, Dipankar, Utpalendu Jana, Pratip Kumar Debnath, and Tapas Kumar Sur. “Initial exploratory observational pharmacology of Valeriana wallichii on stress management: a clinical report.” (2007).|
|↑7||Amsterdam, Jay D., et al. “A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of oral Matricaria recutita (chamomile) extract therapy of generalized anxiety disorder.” Journal of clinical psychopharmacology 29.4 (2009): 378.|
|↑8||Chandrasekhar, K., Jyoti Kapoor, and Sridhar Anishetty. “A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults.” Indian journal of psychological medicine 34, no. 3 (2012): 255.|
|↑9||Dhuri, Kalpana D., Prashant V. Bodhe, and Ashok B. Vaidya. “Shirodhara: A psycho-physiological profile in healthy volunteers.” Journal of Ayurveda and integrative medicine 4, no. 1 (2013): 40.|