A pounding heart, shortness of breath, tremors, dizziness, cold sweats, a choking sensation – these are the common symptoms of claustrophobia. The fear of small spaces may not have a rational basis, but for those who suffer from this condition, the physical and psychological responses to being trapped in a restrictive space are all too real. If being in a confined area gives you an overwhelming sense of panic, you may have this terrifying disorder.
Do I Have Claustrophobia?
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines a “phobia” as a fear that is either completely imaginary or greatly exaggerated.
Signs of a phobic reaction include:
- A sense of panic, dread or terror that has little or no basis in reality
- An inability to control your fear, even though you know it’s irrational
- A sense of being controlled or possessed by your fear once it’s been triggered
- Physical responses like heart palpitations, dizziness or difficulty breathing
- Going to any lengths to avoid the things or situations that trigger your phobia
The symptoms of claustrophobia are usually not life-threatening, but they can be unbearably intense. People with claustrophobia will do almost anything to avoid confronting the source of their fear, even if it means missing out on meaningful activities or cutting themselves off from others. Without professional help, they might turn to coping mechanisms like drugs and alcohol to ease their symptoms. But while having a drink or misusing prescription drugs can provide temporary relief, substance abuse will ultimately make the symptoms of claustrophobia worse.
Perhaps worst of all, substance abuse can destroy your hopes for the future.
Living with the effects of a psychological disorder and substance abuse — a condition called Dual Diagnosis — can undermine your sense of self-esteem and leave you feeling completely out of control.
Seeking help from caring, knowledgeable professionals will help you regain your hope and take charge of your life again.
Getting to the Heart of Claustrophobia
Like other phobias, claustrophobia is classified as an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are very common in the United States, affecting 6.2 percent of the population, according to the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. In fact, this journal estimates that anxiety disorders could be more common than depression and substance abuse. The Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University reports that about 19 million people in the US are living with some type of phobia, ranging from minor fears to severe phobic disorders.
Although the exact cause of claustrophobia is unknown, your response to small spaces may have roots in traumatic experiences. You may have been confined to a closet as a child as a form of punishment, or you may have been trapped in a cellar during a thunderstorm. You might have a family history of anxiety or live in an environment that predisposes you to a fear of being enclosed. Repeatedly avoiding the source of your fear could increase the chances that you will have a phobic response the next time you’re exposed to a stressful situation.
A study in the journal Cognition reveals that your perception of personal space could determine your risk of developing claustrophobia. Researchers found that study participants who were more sensitive to their spatial boundaries were more likely to experience claustrophobic reactions in a confined setting. Participants who needed a lot of personal space in order to feel safe were more likely to feel the need to protect themselves when they felt trapped or constrained.
Claustrophobia and Substance Abuse
How do you manage your life when working, going to school, shopping and traveling all hold potential triggers for your fears? People who suffer from claustrophobia find it hard to face common experiences like riding in elevators, taking public transportation, flying in airplanes or riding in cars. Activities that seem fun to others, like shopping at the mall or going to a movie, can set off intense feelings of panic and dread. Efforts to hide your phobia from coworkers or friends can drain your energy and leave you feeling hopeless and exhausted.
Living with a crippling fear like claustrophobia can affect your life in many destructive ways:
- It can make you avoid rewarding, meaningful activities.
- It can increase your risk of social isolation and depression.
- It can damage your sense of confidence and self-esteem.
- It can predispose you to alcohol or drug abuse.
Having a glass of wine or smoking marijuana might seem like a relatively safe, easy way to deal with the symptoms of claustrophobia, but over time, these tactics will become less and less effective, and you’ll need more of that chemical substance to achieve the same effects.
Eventually, you’ll find that drinking and using drugs actually makes your claustrophobia worse for a number of reasons:
- Some side effects of drinking or drug use, such as heart palpitations, confusion, tunnel vision and vertigo, can intensify your phobic symptoms.
- Drinking and drug abuse can isolate you from others, making it harder to get the social support you need.
- Alcohol and drugs can alter your brain chemistry, making you even more prone to anxiety and mood disorders.
- Drugs and alcohol can harm your physical health, making it more difficult to cope effectively with your phobia.
Healthy Ways to Cope with Claustrophobia
Avoiding small spaces is one of the classic coping mechanisms for dealing with claustrophobia, but it could be one of the least effective. Many mental health experts agree that the more you go out of your way to avoid your triggers, the worse your reaction will be if you’re ever stuck in a tunnel or forced to ride an elevator.
Psychotherapy for claustrophobia focuses on teaching you healthy methods for handling your fear, such as relaxation techniques and positive visualization. Your therapist might begin by teaching you these methods in a safe environment, usually a clinic or office, before encouraging you to gradually confront situations that spark your fear. This approach, called exposure therapy, has helped many adults and children gain confidence in dealing with phobia.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is one of the most popular methods for helping people overcome claustrophobia. CBT is based on the idea that you can learn to control your thoughts and feelings about stressful situations. If being in a basement or closet makes you feel that you’re in extreme danger, a therapist will help you learn healthier, more realistic ways to think about these experiences. By joining a support group, you can learn valuable coping skills and share your experience and hope with others.
Anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants can help some people deal with severe claustrophobia. Psychiatric medication, combined with talk therapy and a phobia support group, can be a powerful tool for rebuilding your life.
Dual Diagnosis Solutions
If you’ve used alcohol or drugs to deal with fear and anxiety, you’re far from alone. Phobias and substance abuse often go hand and hand, notes the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Statistics from the ADAA reveal that up to 20 percent of those who are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder also meet the diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder.
To achieve a full recovery from an anxiety disorder and addiction, you need a treatment plan that encompasses both conditions. Learning new techniques to overcome claustrophobia won’t necessarily help you overcome substance abuse — and vice versa.
A comprehensive Dual Diagnosis treatment program offers these important components:
- Clinical support for detoxification and sobriety
- Staff members who are cross-trained in addiction treatment and psychiatric care
- Treatment for substance abuse and mental health disorders at the same facility
- Self-paced, flexible programs that reflect the needs of the Dual Diagnosis client
- Access to a variety of recovery tools, including one-on-one therapy, group therapy, family counseling, 12-Step meetings and medication therapy
The relationship between addiction and mental health is both delicate and complex. An integrated recovery program helps you deal with the physical and emotional devastation of substance abuse while providing the intensive therapy you need to restore your psyche. Because claustrophobia often occurs with depression or anxiety, you may need a multi-faceted plan that addresses these disorders as well. Experts in Dual Diagnosis care are trained to evaluate and treat multiple conditions.
The effects of drugs and alcohol, combined with the symptoms of a severe phobia, can make life seem hopeless. At FRN, we provide a unique, integrated approach to Dual Diagnosis treatment. Our exclusive recovery centers in Malibu, Palm Springs and Memphis focus on healing the mind and body. Our motivational treatment model gives you the tools you need to build inner strength and reach your recovery goals.
With innovative services and a variety of inpatient and outpatient facilities in our network, we offer our patients a new level of hope. Whether you’re seeking help for yourself, a family member or a good friend, we encourage you to call our toll-free number for more information about treatment options. Our admissions coordinators are available 24 hours a day to help you find the right solution for your needs.
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.