Do I Have Claustrophobia?

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Reader’s Question

I would like to know if I’m claustrophobic or not, and whether it’s serious or not. I’ve been ignoring it my whole life, but I’ve started to feel that maybe it’s not right.

Well, I think it started when I was a child. I heard my mother talking about a man who was buried alive and was found days later — dead with his nails torn because he had been struggling so hard to get out of the grave. I was maybe 10 years old then.

For the next five years, day and night, I had bad dreams that I was buried alive. It controlled my life.

After attending high school things got better, I think because I had a lot to do. But I would still have bad thoughts once in a while.

As a child, I never felt a real fear when I was in enclosed places, but I always felt uncomfortable.

Recently I moved to a new country in order to attend university. For two years now I feel it’s worse than when I was a child.

I feel suffocated in cars, tunnels, small elevators, airplanes, public restrooms and crowds; I never sleep covering my head, even if it’s freezing; and I often imagine myself being stuck in enclosed places.

The symptoms I have are:

  • a feeling of danger,
  • inability to breathe,
  • the need to find a way out immediately,
  • my body gets warm.

I would do anything to get out. Once I broke a door in order to get out, and I’m not a strong girl at all! I’ve never had serious symptoms, maybe because I’ve never been through serious situations!

I’m not looking for therapy. If this is a phobia, I’d prefer to live with it than face it.

Psychologist’s Reply

You say you are looking for an answer about whether you have claustrophobia. Claustrophobia is defined by Merriam Webster as “abnormal dread of being in closed or narrow spaces.” It certainly seems as if this is what you have described! Psychologists understand claustrophobia as a type of specific phobia, which is a disorder described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV, TR). Without gathering more information from you, I would not be able to determine whether you qualify for a diagnosis of a specific phobia. You would have to meet with a mental health practitioner in person to say for sure. However, it may be helpful for you to know the diagnostic criteria for phobias.

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The DSM-IV, TR states that phobias are characterized by a “marked and persistent fear that is excessive or unreasonable, cued by the presence or anticipation of a specific object or situation” and notes that the individual recognizes the fear as excessive or unreasonable. I am unsure from your question whether you would describe your fear that way.

Additionally, for those with phobias, the presence of the feared situation causes an immediate and intense anxiety response. You mentioned that when faced with small spaces you have experienced a number of anxiety symptoms, including feeling warm, difficulty breathing, and the need to escape.

Finally, those with phobias either avoid the feared situation or endure it with intense anxiety or distress. I would say breaking down a door to escape would qualify! I am not sure of the lengths you go to avoid cars, tunnels, public bathrooms, etc. But a key to determining whether this is just a strong but normal fear or a psychological disorder depends on how much your fear is disrupting your life. For example, if you are missing out on social outings you would like to attend or required school activities due to avoiding cars or tunnels, then I would say it is interfering significantly.

Why do you have this fear? It is hard to know. But the fact that you had recurring dreams of being buried alive after hearing the story of the man who was buried tells me that that story had a great impact on you as a child. Sometimes childhood experiences are the beginning of phobias. In other cases, phobic behavior is modeled by others. For example, a father who is phobic of needles may pass this fear on to his children if they observe him being fearful or fainting when needles are present.

You noted that this fear comes and goes in your life. It does not surprise me that you experienced increased intensity of this fear when you began attending college in a new country. It takes a lot of courage to study as an international student, and it can be quite stressful. When overall levels of stress or anxiety rise, old fears, old coping mechanisms, and old habits can return or intensify as well. A fear that you had been successfully managing or that had been mild is now in the forefront for you. It may be that as you continue to acculturate and adjust to where you are and your role as a college student, claustrophobia will remit as well.

As you go forward, pay close attention to times in your days, weeks or years when you are less anxious or feeling less impacted by claustrophobia, and make a note of what you are doing, who you are with, and what you are thinking. For example, you mentioned that in high school you were busy and this was helpful. You can get to know what works for you and begin to create a list of your own best tools (besides avoidance) to live with this fear. Avoidance, over time, will only serve to reinforce your fear.

Should you change your mind about going to therapy, the good news is that anxiety disorders, including specific phobias, are highly treatable. A cognitive behavioral therapist could help you (in a fairly straightforward way) to gain control over this fear and reduce its impact on your life by helping you through a process called desensitization. You could also do your own research via self-help books to walk yourself through this process, though that may take longer.

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