What is Claustrophobia?

Claustrophobia is a fear of confined spaces. It is believed to affect 1 in every 10 people and therefore is very common. Claustrophobia symptoms typically consist of anxiety, feelings of panic, gasping for breath, feeling trapped and needing to escape. Severity can vary with some feeling manageably anxious whilst others are unable to lock their doors at home, travel in vehicles or go into buildings without knowing all exit routes. Some people with claustrophobia can only travel in a front seat of a car, and many must have windows open. Claustrophobia can affect and inhibit life severely rendering travel, use of public toilets and shopping. MRI scans and cars with central locking are a complete impossibility. Claustrophobia is a ‘simple’ phobia and is an acquired fear, therefore not something you are born with thus it can be successfully treated.

How does Claustrophobia start?

Most often claustrophobia is caused by an event from childhood, either observing and copying a parent or adult’s reaction or experiencing an event which to you as a child felt traumatic. Examples include;

  • Using the toilet, locking the door and then being unable or not knowing how to unlock it.
  • Being teased by a sibling or friend, and them locking or pretending to lock you in a cupboard, shed or even under a cover or quilt.
  • Feeling terrified on a fairground ride, desperate to escape but being unable to get off until the ride ends
  • A lift breaking down (and commonly observing someone else’s panic response) and then believing this must mean that you are in danger.
  • Being underwater, such as in a swimming pool and feeling you can’t get up for air.

Overcoming Claustrophobia

The most effective way to address and overcome a phobia is to firstly establish when it started, as it is based upon your interpretation of that event that your phobia was created. If you feel you are unsure, writing a timeline can help. We also have a PDF timeline for you to download. Everyone usually knows the start of their phobia but has not associated the past event with the start of their fear. Furthermore, many mistake their first phobic response as the start, however for the phobic response to have occurred, the phobia started prior to this.

Once you do know the start, it is a good idea to score how scary that event was to you at that time. Score this out of 10, with 10 being the most severe. You should also write down how you perceived the starting event when it occurred. For example, did you think you were going to die or never escape? You should then challenge your perspective noting that you of course did not die, you were not trapped as you managed to get away. Also, consider the facts. If you were ‘stuck’ in a lift, would it not be more factual to say you were temporarily inconvenienced?

You should also consider who created the event. Did the enclosed space orchestrate it or was it a person or a scary fairground ride? Did the enclosed space orchestrate you being locked in the toilet or was it the fact you chose to lock the door and were too young or too little to unlock it? If you find yourself saying something negative about the enclosed space, then end the sentence with ‘but luckily’ and find a more favourable conclusion. For example ‘I felt I couldn’t breathe BUT LUCKILY I could otherwise I wouldn’t be here’. 

Once you have thoroughly positively challenged the inaccurate belief you had when your fear was created, you should then look for positive facts about small spaces such as;

  • You’ve already been in a tiny space for 9 months, and this tight space protected you and allowed you / your children to grow whilst in the womb.
  • An aeroplane, car or train with no cover would be catastrophic, so the enclosed space keeps you safe.
  • You are in control of a toilet lock, and not the enclosed space.
  • You are now an adult so are able to unlock toilet doors.
  • Enclosed spaces protect you, and therefore it is unfair to think badly of an innocent party.


Review the originating event and note when you consider it now, whether the negative emotionality score has reduced. If it has this is great news, however, if the reduction is only slight, you should look for more positive evidence or even ask a friend to help you consider some positive facts about how enclosed spaces are good, promote safety and have never themselves caused you harm.

Living with claustrophobia can be extremely challenging, however, you are not alone. Here at Trauma Research UK, our belief is, ‘it’s not what’s wrong with you, it’s what happened to you’. With this philosophy, we believe that everyone can successfully overcome their mental health issues if given the right help and support. Read more…