Panic Attacks: Coping With Adult Onset Claustrophobia

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So, I’m beginning to think I have adult onset claustrophobia. I don’t like to think about Santa Claus getting stuck while going down the chimney. Scuba diving is to me as oil is to water. And don’t get me started on the dreaded MRI machine. But there are a few other concrete symptoms that make me think I may have developed this tricky anxiety disorder that’s based on irrational fears:

1. Over Christmas I stayed in a Paris apartment that featured an elevator which snugly fit two medium-size roller suitcases — and nothing else. I couldn’t physically make myself get into the thing, even though the alternative was six long flights of stairs. My husband took the lift, I walked. I’ve never loved small spaces, but this was the first time that had ever happened to me.

2. Lately, during acupuncture (which I’ve had done for years), I become completely panicked when Anne, my trusted acupuncturist, closes the door and leaves the room for 20-30 minutes. I refuse to let her put a relaxing, scented eye pillow over my eyes. And I won’t let her turn off the light, even though there’s a candle burning and New Age-y music playing. As soon as she leaves, I start sweating and my heart starts beating fast. I feel like the room is too small, even though it’s not. I feel like I need to get up and immediately leave the space, despite the fact that I can’t, thanks to those needles. When I close my eyes I feel like I’m suffocating, and when I open them I feel like the walls are closing in on me. Lying on my stomach is really bad, but being on my back isn’t much better. During one recent session, I actually yelled out for Anne repeatedly until she came into the room and removed the needles so that I could move around. Embarrassing. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before, either.

3. In December, I got a facial at a fancy spa as a birthday present. Now, I’ve had my fair share of facials in my day, so I knew exactly what to expect. But when the aesthetician pointed the steam machine toward my face, I began to feel like I was drowning. Not cool. Then she put plastic eye guards over my eyes to shield them from the bright light under which she performed extractions for ten minutes. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. It was all I could do to not leap off the table and demand some fresh air and a drink of water, but at that point she was gouging the skin near my eyes with a very sharp implement, so I thought better of it. Again, this was the first time I’d ever experienced that feeling.

According to NYU’s Langone Medical Center, claustrophobia typically presents itself during childhood or the teenage years, and can often disappear during adulthood. (Not with me!) And as if I didn’t need to be any more bummed out, apparently when teens and adults do develop phobias, only 20% of cases can be “cured” without professional help. On the bright side, the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that between 5% and 12% of Americans suffer from some type of phobia, so I guess I can take comfort in the fact that I’m not alone in my anxiety-ridden state — not with all those other irrational souls jammed into my crowded room.

Do I have a history of anxiety disorders? I didn’t think so, but now that you mention it, I have overpaid for several bouts of therapy over the years, and have taken antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds. (My former shrink thought I had a little OCD.)

So what to do now about this disturbing potential claustrophobia development, other than avoid acupuncture, spas, and Paris? I’m consulting a doctor who’s an expert in phobias, so stay tuned for my next post.

In the meantime, share stories about your personal phobias (claustrophobia or otherwise) in the comments section, below. And don’t be scared — you can comment anonymously.

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    • Christopher

      I once was sitting next to a woman on a short flight from Munich to London. She was sitting in the aisle seat. Every time the drink cart rolled in front of her seat (blocking her “escape route” she started trembling and trying to move the cart away from her seat. Scared the kablooey out of me.

    • Aly

      I found your post in a google search about this subject. I’m going through the same thing as you are and would be most interested to see how your Dr. visit went. I’m in my 40s and, suddenly, after a terrifying MRI experience a few months ago, I’ve suddenly panicked on a plane, on a bus and, recently, in a normal-sized hotel room. Thank you for posting.

    • Renee

      Christine, I totally feel you! I have IBS and I get extremely paranoid of being trapped in places—large or small. I’m fine on an airplane because there are bathrooms, but I totally relate to what Christopher said in regard to his seat-mate. When the drink cart rolls by, I get hot and panicked.

      I KNOW in my head that it’s ridiculous, but my body doesn’t listen.

    • roscoralf

      I am a 47 year-old male and recently flew from Washington DC to Tenn. and had my first “attack” of what I would call claustrophobia. Never really had anything before like this, but found myself panicing and had to go to the lavatory on the plane to get some relief. Got thru the flight, but now I get that feeling in my own house, such as sitting on the couch and my wife leans against me. This sucks. I have gotten some relief from closing my eyes and “allowing” the feeling to overtake me…….this seems to lighten the load and help quite a bit…..albeit very counter-intuitive.
      I find now that even the fear of having an attack can sometimes bring on the physical feeling. I know with my brain it has to be simply mental, but getting back control of it is another thing entirely.

    • mi

      I too have developed this as an adult along with panic attacks when getting claustrophobic. I haven’t seen a doc yet. I don’t like elevators, back seats in cars, rollercoasters, ski lifts, etc. What has worked so far for you? should I just face the fear and go with it? Thx

      • KNOX

        Yes face your fear. And make sure you are cool and with people who care. Usually with elevators I have to practice going in the same one until I get used to it and feel ok and also bring my cell phone. It’s ok to just cry when it happens. you are not alone. Thank you for sharing.

    • Frenchie Mama

      I too am in your club and what bothers me the most is the older I get the worse it gets. I simply cannot use an elevator (the worst), can’t even think of using it. I could never end up in jail, I have to shoot myself first, just can’t be done. I was thinking of doing acupuncture to help alleviate the symptoms? This is really starting to rule my life and I want it back.

    • np

      I just had a panic attack at a car wash and had to get out of my car and let in roll through on its own. I have used car washes multiple times and have never had that happen before. I also had the same thing happen to me while getting a facial a couple weeks ago. My hands and feet were in the warming gloves the steam was blowing in my face and then she put a wash cloth over my face. I tried very hard to tell myself it was ok and I would be fine until I couldn’t take it anymore and had to sit up to get the wash cloth off my face. Not very fun at all! I hope that there is something I can do to get this under control. I am nervous that if I need to fly somewhere I won’t be able to handle being on a plane. Help!!

      • KNOX

        I have panicked at the car wash! I recommend turning cold air on and bring your dog, if you have one. I find if im cool i feel less stressed. Don’t give up. It’s so great to hear that I’m not alone. Thank you for sharing.

    • Js

      I just had a massage today which featured aroma therapy and I had to get them to remove the strong scent because I felt I couldn’t breathe. I’m ok in elevators unless they are very crowded or start to sound funny. Definitely can’t deal with the steam during facials. Let us know if you find any tips for coping with this!

    • Heidi

      I have the same issues. When I got a facial I freaked out with the steam mask on my face. When I broke a bone in my foot I refused to let them put a cast on me. I can’t sleep in hotel rooms anymore. I hate getting dental work done and last time had to “go to the bathroom” during a procedure. Ugh!

      • KNOX

        Heidi I do that also now. I have had chair massages for many years and just this year I felt like i couldn’t breath and felt trapped so I made up an excuse to get water. I think it’ hormones. I try to laugh it off with my friends but it sucks. I had a facial and after she put a thin mud mask on I panicked and asked the lady to open the door and wipe it off. I was embarrassed but I had to tell someone about it so I didn’t shame spiral. I am going to try it again with a loose shirt and somewhere I feel more comfortable. The last facial I got, the woman was kind and wonderful, even had a cold rag ready for me. It seems as if heat is a big trigger for me. It’s going to be ok, just don’t give up.

    • Knox

      I feel the exact same way. I wonder if its related to hormones?

    • Knox

      Every single thing mentioned has happened to me, car wash, elevator, recently the facial. When i feel hot it feels the worst. Thanks everyone who shared. Its helpful not to feel alone.

    • F

      It’s nice to find people experiencing the same things! Sometimes I feel like a complete weirdo when I’m having an attack and have to leave a place. The first time this happened to me was in a hotel room on the eighteenth floor. I suddenly had to get out of the room and into open air outside. Don’t get me started on dreaded elevator rides. I too take the stairs most of the time but hey, at least I’m getting a work out!

    • misard

      My life was a hell caused by my panic attacks and anxiety. I tried everything: psychologists, psychiatrists, all kinds of pills and drugs. The only thing that helped me and cured me were these techniques I found online. I hope they will be useful.

    • Stanley

      I thought these situations only happened to me. It makes me feel good that I’m not the only one that is experiencing these strange happenings. Heat, darkness, and closed in places seem to trigger pre anxiety attacks and claus. I don’t know as an adult why these things are happening and am sometimes concerned that it will get worse perhaps life threatening. I am thinking positive that I will be ok. I want to wish all the others out there going through these similar situations the best of luck. We all will get better.