There are a range of treatment options available to people diagnosed with claustrophobia, according to Brenda K. Wiederhold, PhD, a clinical psychologist and co-founder and chief behavioral health officer of the Virtual Reality Medical Center in La Jolla, California, which uses virtual reality as a therapeutic strategy to help manage certain phobias. Dr. Wiederhold completed the first virtual reality study — to treat aerophobia (fear of flying) — published in 2002, and has since worked with patients through virtual reality to help manage their phobias.
The two main treatment options for claustrophobia are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy, according to Cleveland Clinic. A combination of CBT and exposure therapy is the gold standard for treating phobias, including claustrophobia, Antony notes. Medication and lifestyle strategies, such as relaxation techniques, may also be used in some cases.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is a form of psychotherapy (aka “talk therapy”) in which a mental health professional, such as a therapist, helps patients learn to identify unhelpful or distorted thinking and behavioral patterns and replace them with more constructive ones.
During CBT sessions, your therapist can help you learn to manage your phobia by discussing your symptoms, help you understand why your symptoms happen, learn helpful coping strategies to keep your mind and body calm, and reevaluate and change your thinking patterns around your phobia.
“These involve strategies that help people to identify and challenge some of their beliefs they have — for example, to look for evidence that they won’t suffocate on an elevator and help you consider changing the way you think, feel, and behave,” Antony says.
During exposure therapy, also known as desensitization therapy, patients work with a mental health professional to gradually expose themselves to their fears in safe and controlled settings to learn to better manage them, according to Cleveland Clinic. It can be done in a variety of settings and ways, says Weiderhold, such as:
- Virtual reality settings, like in Wiederhold’s practice, which gradually helps expose people with phobias to virtual simulations of their fears
- Visualization exercises, such as looking at pictures of feared objects of situations
- Short bouts of real-life exposures to feared objects or situations
You’ll also likely start with small exposures and gradually increase the difficulty of these exposures over time, per Cleveland Clinic. For example, if you’re fearful of sitting in a confined space like an airplane, your therapist may work with you over time to get comfortable with simply getting to the airport, then later sitting in the lounge near your gate, and eventually sitting on the plane itself, Wiederhold explains.
In some instances when anxiety is severe, individuals with phobias may be prescribed medication, according to Cleveland Clinic. This may happen ahead of situations such as taking a flight or undergoing an MRI scan, for example. Benzodiazepines and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most common options, according to Lewis.
While CBT and exposure therapy with a mental health professional are often the most crucial part of treatment, you can supplement these therapies with certain lifestyle strategies. Some of the most effective strategies are those that can help you relax, such as mindfulness, meditation, and journaling to alleviate stress, Lewis says.
Deep breathing exercises (such as breathing in slowly and deeply through your nose, holding for three seconds, and then breathing out slowly through your mouth) and progressive muscle relaxation (repeatedly tensing and relaxing certain muscles throughout your body) can also be helpful, per Cleveland Clinic.