A frightening experience in childhood is the usual cause of
claustrophobia, a mental state resulting in fear of enclosed or crowded
areas. It can often be treated simply with behaviour therapy or hypnosis.
Claustrophobia is the fear of being in enclosed spaces, such as lifts or
small rooms, or of being in crowded areas. A great many people suffer from
this in a relatively mild way and almost everyone feels claustrophobic from
time to time.
Being part of a crowd in an underground station during rush hour or in a
small elevator full of people can produce unease and often slight panic.
However, if this becomes an habitual response and a person is avoiding
crowded or confined areas, then claustrophobia has become worrying.
Almost invariably claustrophobia springs from a bad experience of being
trapped or confined in a small or crowded space. Being trapped in a crowded
train in a dark tunnel or being locked, alone, in a cupboard for several
hours as part of some childish but cruel game are obvious examples.
Most people can remember quite distinctly - often too vividly - the
experience that has brought on their claustrophobia and merely recalling it
invokes the same intense fear and the physical sensations that went with it.
With others, the memory may be locked somewhere in the subconscious but the
feelings of intense panic are associated with certain places such as
supermarkets or situations such as being jostled in a bus or queue.
Feelings of panic, trembling and weakness in the limbs are a few of the
symptoms of claustrophobia. Others include breathing difficulties,
palpitations, sweating, dizziness and a feeling of faintness - all symptoms
of acute anxiety. Hyperventilation (fast, shallow breathing) often
accompanies and worsens these symptoms.
Once removed from the situation, the fear - and the actual symptoms -
abate, causing no physical harm to the person.
HOW TO COPE WITH IT
People who suffer relatively mild claustrophobia usually try to avoid
crowded or confined places (some people, for instance, never travel on
underground trains for this reason). If, however, they must expose
themselves to such places, then it is wise to be with a sympathetic
companion who knows about their phobia and can reassure them.
For those who suffer such severe claustrophobia that it seriously affects
their daily lives. some form of treatment is necessary for their own
Behaviour therapy is the most common way of treating claustrophobia. This
relies on the belief that exposure to the feared experience under safe
conditions will make it less threatening. The therapist, for instance, will
accompany the sufferer when he rides in a small elevator, providing
emotional support. At the same time, the therapist may suggest relaxation
techniques for coping with the anxiety feelings.
Gradually, the sufferer will be exposed to various other confined or
crowded places so that he learns that the feared situation is not as bad as
he thought. After several more encounters of a similar kind, the person
should have gained sufficient confidence to deal with the phobia on his own
without the therapist's support.