It's dark, and you're trapped. Stooped down in these close quarters, you find that you can't fully stand up. You stretch a shaky hand downward, feeling blindly for the ground. Your hand finds its mark, and you lower yourself uncertainly down onto your hands and knees. You begin to crawl forward toward a bit of light you, hoping you're moving in the direction that'll get you out of here.
Were you to find yourself in a dark, confined space like this, how do you think you'd react? Fear, certainly, seems like an appropriate response. Would your pulse speed up? Maybe you'd start breathing more heavily? Sweating and trembling sound like pretty normal reactions, too. But what if you sweated, hyperventilated and were overcome with a deep feeling of dread when you were just sitting in a car?
It's at this point that a person would likely be diagnosed with claustrophobia -- an irrational fear of confined spaces. Claustrophobia, like all phobias, is classified by the medical establishment as an anxiety disorder. When a person suffering from claustrophobia finds himself or herself in a small space -- say, an elevator or a crowded party -- his or her phobia will be triggered. The anxiety that ensues generates both a physical and psychological reaction to the experience [source: Mount Sinai]. That explains the trembling and increased heart rate as well as the sense of panic or doom that set in while you were stuck in a car during rush hour.
Science hasn't found any preventive cure for claustrophobia, although episodes can be treated with therapy and prescription medications like antidepressants. While most of us won't suffer an attack if we climb into a cardboard refrigerator box, it seems that everyone can display symptoms of claustrophobia under extreme circumstances. After all, who wouldn't completely freak out if buried alive in a casket or restrained in a straitjacket?
So does this mean that everyone has claustrophobia -- at least to some degree? Find out on the next page about a theory that suggests claustrophobia may be latent in us all.
Theories of Claustrophobia
Claustrophobia is a fairly mysterious disorder. It doesn't appear in the annals of medicine until the 1870s. A French physician working in Paris wrote of two people who reported feeling anxious when they were inside their apartments with the doors closed [source: Marsh]. These cases emerged when Paris was rapidly urbanizing -- more people were crowding into the city, and life was getting cramped. Shortly after these cases were documented, a similar case developed in a man who lived in New York just as that city was becoming more urbanized. Some theorists postulate that claustrophobia resulted from the rise of the modern city [source: Marsh]. The theory makes sense; after all, was there such a thing as fear of flying (aviatophobia) before airplanes existed? So there could be many more claustrophobes in the world than current estimates predict, given that half of the global population lives in cities [source: AP].
The statistics associated with claustrophobia are far from solid. Some estimates say that nearly 2 percent of people suffer from the disorder [source: Dozier]. Others put the number at 10 percent [source: Perry]. Real world settings suggest these numbers may be inaccurate, though, given some common situations that provoke symptoms of claustrophobia.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners are a vital instrument for internal medicine diagnosis. They're also confining -- essentially, an MRI is a tube into which the patient is slid lying down. This design has made MRIs inadvertent tools for bringing latent claustrophobia barreling to the surface. As many as 65 percent of patients who undergo an MRI scan suffer "dysphoric psychological reactions," or in layman's terms, sudden anxiety [source: Woodward].
It seems like a no-brainer that being in an enclosed space could evoke feelings of claustrophobia. While some believe the condition is passed down genetically, others say it's transferred through conditioning. A child with a claustrophobe parent may learn to fear confined spaces after witnessing the parent suffer an anxious episode in a certain place [source: Perry]. Another theory is that claustrophobia results from childhood trauma, like being trapped in a closet.
Some psychologists claim that claustrophobia is rooted in the birth process. Emerging from the womb can be tricky. Even the most routine births involve being passed through the cramped, confined space of the uterus, after which a newborn is forced out by a series of muscular contractions, an event referred to as birth trauma. While birth trauma theorists suggest that all of us have claustrophobia to some degree (since all of us were born), under this theory, more difficult births would produce more pronounced cases of claustrophobia later in life.
Sigmund Freud first theorized that birth provided the foundation for anxiety disorders like claustrophobia. He discarded this theory, however, and Otto Rank (one of his adherents) took up the mantle [source: Grof]. Birth trauma is still viewed as one theory that could explain not only claustrophobia, but also what appears to be its antithesis, agoraphobia (fear of open places), since birth also involves the sudden exposure of a human into the vast, wide world.
The concept of birth trauma certainly increases the estimated number of claustrophobes. Of course, there's a significant difference between suffering an anxiety attack when trapped in a well and not being able to ride in an elevator, a common problem that clinically diagnosed claustrophobes face. But if Freud and his early followers are correct, there's a little bit of a claustrophobe in all of us.
For more information on phobias and other related topics, visit the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Chamberlain, David B., Ph.D. "Healing of pre- and perinatal trauma." Birth Psychology. http://www.birthpsychology.com/healing/
- Dozier, Rush W. "Fear Itself: The Origin and Nature of the Powerful." Macmillan. 1998. http://books.google.com/booksid=vuqqWPE5v8kC&pg=PA103&lpg=PA103&dq=percentage+population+claustrophobia&source=web&ots=XRdxS77Jxb&sig=eQ0DEHZ6zUU8feO9cAauNI4sxR0&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=7&ct=result
- Grof, Stanislav. "Psychology of the Future." State University of New York Press. 2000. http://books.google.com/booksid=RwQnJ1p7qWUC&pg=PA77&lpg=PA77&dq=birth+trauma+claustrophobia&source=web&ots=CmJgJsyBA4&sig=nYilYyLdwTElHtZErEDTHyUJvI&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=3&ct=result
- Marsh, Katherine. "Waiting to exhale." New York Times/ January 27, 2002. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9800EFD7163AF934A15752C0A9649C8B63&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss
- Perry, Andrea. "Trapped … then I discovered that I was claustrophobic." The Telegraph. March 3, 2008. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/main.jhtml?xml=/health/2008/03/03/hclaustrophiobia103.xml
- Woodward, Peggy. "MRI for Technologists." McGraw-Hill Professional. 2000. http://books.google.com/booksid=fR5u5u1hwFkC&pg=PA309&lpg=PA309&dq=percentage+population+claustrophobia&source=web&ots=4v9QxMFM8Y&sig=lMoKtJUl_CrilEJLMIfqRuQpEuA&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=6&ct=result
- "Claustrophobia." University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. January 2008. http://www.upmc.com/HealthManagement/ManagingYourHealth/HealthReference/Diseases/?chunkiid=100695
- "Free-floating anxiety." Online Medical Dictionary. March 5, 2000. http://cancerweb.ncl.ac.uk/cgi-bin/omd?free-floating+anxiety
- "UN says half the world's population will live in urban areas by end of 2008." Associated Press. February 26, 2008. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=25762