Self-Hypnosis to Treat Claustrophobia Fear of Enclosed Spaces

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Definition

The word ‘claustrophobia’ comes from the Latin word ‘claustrum’, which means (amongst other things!) an enclosure, and it is the fear of being enclosed in small spaces or rooms or the fear of being unable to escape from small spaces or rooms. In reality, there are two components to this phobia: fear of enclosed spaces; fear of suffocation.

Prevalence

A study published in 1997 suggested that between 5% and 7% of the world’s population suffers from this phobia, although another study has arrived at a lower figure of between 2% and 5%.

Origins

It is true that this phobia can develop because of the same 5 reasons outlined on pages about other phobias: severe past trauma; a series of minor traumas accumulating over a period of time; severe stress; fear of fear; learned from other people.

However, there is research to suggest that there is another cause of this particular phobia that warrants some attention. It is thought that claustrophobia might also be a ‘prepared phobia’. That is to say that it might not be an entirely learned or conditioned response, but might have its origins in the evolution of the species – it may be a vestigial defence mechanism. It might make sense that early humans, living in caves, might have developed a fear either of suddenly finding their cave full of dangerous animals (or of inadvertently entering a cave that already contained a dangerous animal) or of being trapped due to the cave collapsing. The theory is that we have been left with a dormant fear that is very easily reawakened.

Symptoms

As stated above, claustrophobia sufferers have a fear of restriction and a fear of suffocation. Typically, a sufferer will fear restriction in a number of areas: lifts/elevators; underground railways; cars; locked rooms; aeroplanes; etc. They may also fear a lack of air in the places where they might feel trapped.

The exact symptoms experienced in claustrophobia are the same as in other phobias: physical symptoms of panic attack (nausea; palpitations; sweating; feeling faint; rapid heartbeat; shortness of breath; tightness in the chest; abdominal pains. Remember, the symptoms of phobia can occur even in the absence of the trigger – so someone who suffers from fear of insects might experience any of the above symptoms merely at the thought of being in an enclosed space!); fear of the thought of being enclosed, or fear of the consequences (panic attacks) of being enclosed.

Avoidance is a significant feature of this phobia. Sufferers will avoid any enclosed spaces, and so this may be extremely limiting. For example, sufferers may find they have to take unusual methods to get to work in order to avoid subways, or elevators, or trains. Some sufferers may find they are unable to undergo important medical investigations such as an MRI scan because of the fear of enclosure in the scanner.

Treatments

Cognitive therapy has been used to treat claustrophobia, with a success rate (in a 1992 study by Rachman) of about 30%. The aim is to modify distorted thoughts and correct any misconceptions around the phobic stimulus, thereby reducing associated anxiety.

Progressive in vivo exposure. In this method, phobics are forced to come face to face with their fears in a progressive way –starting with a mildly anxiety-inducing stimulus and then progressing to more severe exposure. In his 1992 study, Rachman found this method to be effective in reducing anxiety in 75% of sufferers.

Hypnosis / self hypnosis. My recommendation with all phobias is that they are more successfully treated by a trained therapist with the use of self hypnosis as support, than by use of self hypnosis as the sole therapy. Within that constraint, the forms of therapy outlined on the ‘treatments of phobias’ page on this site (link below) can all be used successfully: positive phobia replacement; positive visualisation; Hypno desensitisation; flooding; regression.