What is claustrophobia – and why does it frighten us?

Claustrophobia can happen when someone is faced with a confined space. (Getty Images)
Claustrophobia can happen when someone is faced with a confined space. (Getty Images)

The disappearance of the OceanGate submarine – which lost contact just one hour into its journey to see the Titanic – has caused many people to feel secondhand claustrophobia.

"Everything I read about the titanic submarine is triggering my claustrophobia," one Twitter user wrote, while another said: "Anyone else feeling phantom claustrophobia hearing about that Titanic tour? Pure f***ing horror."

The submarine held just five passengers inside its 6.7 by 2.8 by 2.5 metre frame – a space primed to create claustrophobic conditions.

A BBC video featuring OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush filmed in 2022 showed that passengers on the sub can't stand and can only sit down cross-legged inside the vessel – most won’t even have enough space to extend their legs out in front of them.

Read more: Titanic sub missing - LIVE: Latest updates as hopes fade in final hours - Yahoo News UK, 3-min read

The vessel also has just one toilet with a curtain for privacy, and one small window. It is bolted shut from the outside.

What is claustrophobia?

The NHS defines claustrophobia as the irrational fear of confined spaces. Those who suffer from the condition will often avoid cramped or restrictive spaces, and can suffer from anxiety or even panic attacks when faced with a confined space.

Around 12.5% of people in the UK suffer from claustrophobia.

Interior of commercial airplane with passengers in their seats during flight.
Claustrophobia can be triggered by having to be in small spaces such as on a plane. (Getty Images)

Claustrophobia triggers and causes

Certain confined spaces such as lifts, tunnels, tube trains, planes and hotel rooms with sealed windows can be claustrophobia triggers, and some people begin to feel anxious just thinking about these things.

While claustrophobia is often caused by a traumatic event in childhood, such as for children who were bullied or abused, it can also be developed as an adult if you are put in an unpleasant situation such as bad turbulence when flying or being stuck on a tube between tunnels (or, you know, being trapped in a vessel miles below the ocean’s surface).

"It’s not uncommon for individuals to discover their claustrophobic tendencies later on in life when faced with confined spaces. Sometimes, people may not even be aware of their fear until they encounter a situation that triggers it," says Harley Streets phobia specialist, Christopher Paul Jones.

"Claustrophobia can manifest differently in different individuals, and it can be triggered by various scenarios such as crowded elevators, small rooms, or even packed public transportation – but until that ‘trigger’ is hit, some people may never realise they have claustrophobia at all. Once it has, the feeling of being confined and restricted can suddenly evoke anxiety and a strong desire to escape that a person may never have felt before."

Read more: Inside the Titanic sub: Video shows conditions explorers are facing as search continues - Yahoo News UK, 5-min read

Why does claustrophobia frighten us?

Even if you don’t consider yourself to be claustrophobic, you may have felt a hint of it when thinking about the men trapped in the OceanGate submarine over the past few days.

This is because feelings of claustrophobia are often associated with fear of suffocation or restriction, and desire to escape. Knowing that these men do not have means of escaping their vessel and that the oxygen available inside the vessel is limited, we can feel secondhand claustrophobia imagining the situation.

As with most fears, the ultimate worry of claustrophobia is the fear of death, which is why it can frighten us so much.

"From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense to fear enclosed spaces," Jone says. "Our ancestors had to be vigilant of tight spaces that could pose a threat or hinder their ability to escape, so when faced with a claustrophobic space, our natural fear response kicks in, releasing adrenaline to prepare us for fight or flight.

"It's our body's way of staying safe, even though it can feel overwhelming, and while it’s normal to feel a bit panicked when you feel confined, claustrophobia takes this fear one step further."

man next to windows
Claustrophobia is defined as the irrational fear of confined spaces. (Getty Images)

Symptoms of claustrophobia

Signs that you have claustrophobia may include:

  • Panic attacks

  • Trembling

  • Sweating

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Chest pain or tightness

  • Headaches

  • Feeling sick

  • Feeling confused and disoriented

"On a psychological level, claustrophobia can make individuals feel a loss of control and heightened vulnerability," Jones explains.

"It can cause them to avoid situations or places that may trigger their fear, leading to limitations in daily life, such as never visiting a certain family member as they live in a high-rise, or never taking public transport and missing out on parties or other special life events," he adds.

Like any phobia, Jones highlights that once it sets in, claustrophobia can take control over our emotions and fears, meaning we can act ‘irrationally’ – at least to those who don’t understand our fear.

Claustrophobia treatment

Most people with claustrophobia don’t have an official diagnosis as they tend to avoid confined spaces where possible. However, if you think you may be claustrophobic you can visit your GP who can refer you to a psychologist or a specialist in behavioural therapy.

If you would like to have therapy to help with your claustrophobia, you can refer yourself to the free NHS talking therapy without going to your GP.

If you do suffer from panic attacks caused by claustrophobia, you can call the Anxiety UK helpline on 03444 775774 from Monday to Friday between 9.30am and 5.30pm to speak to someone.