Claustrophobia and Panic Attacks

Defining Claustrophobia

A patient lying inside an MRI machine.
A patient lying inside an MRI machine.. Johnny Greig/Getty Images

Medical Specialties: Family practice, Internal medicine, Psychiatry

Clinical Definition: Claustrophobia is a persistent, irrational fear of enclosed spaces. The phobia, a type of anxiety disorder, triggers reactions and anxiety symptoms such as dizziness, nausea and tachycardia, which results in avoidance of situations or objects that trigger it. Desensitization, medication and cognitive therapy can help.

In Our Own Words: Claustrophobia is fear of certain enclosed spaces that trigger anxiety symptoms such as dizziness, a pounding heart, nausea and trembling. Being exposed to an enclosed space or even thinking about the exposure can cause an anxiety reaction. Fear of caves, elevators, tunnels, and closed MRI scanners are typical examples.

More Information About Phobias

Phobias affect about 10 percent of all people. There are many types of phobias, including fear of blood, fear of heights, fear of flying, and fear of open spaces (agoraphobia). Additionally, social phobia is a fear of social settings or performances. People with social phobia are scared of meeting unfamiliar people or being evaluated or judged by another person.

Although phobias are anxiety disorders, unlike other anxiety disorders which are more generalized in scope, phobias are triggered by a specific stimulus, like being in a closet, being on a plane, being in an open space or so forth.

People with severe phobias often experience panic attacks. A panic attack is characterized by intense fear or discomfort that peaks within a few minutes.

Here are some common symptoms of panic attacks:

  • sweating
  • pounding heart (palpitations)
  • dizziness
  • chill sensations
  • hot flashes
  • fear of losing control
  • chest pain
  • trouble breathing
  • choking feelings
  • nausea
  • stomach discomfort
  • numbness or tingling
  • depersonalization (feeling detached from the surrounding environment)
  • feeling like you're going to die
  • feeling like you're "losing your mind" or "going crazy"

Of note, you don't need to have all the above symptoms to experience a panic attack. Panic attacks are scary and can happen spontaneously and without warning.

Phobias are diagnosed after a person starts avoiding people, places and things, and this avoidance interferes with normal functioning and activities of daily living. Typically, people with phobias have difficulty working or socializing others.

Phobias can be treated with beta-blockers (propanolol) or psychiatric medications like SSRIs. Furthermore, cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on insight into behaviors, can also help.

Claustrophobia and MRI Machines

One very specific trigger of claustrophobia is the enclosed scanner tube of an MRI machine. People with claustrophobia can have a panic attack inside the machine, which can be a particularly scary and traumatic experience.

Nevertheless, it's either often necessary or recommended for people with certain medical conditions, like strokes or tumors, to receive an MRI; thus, there are ways to calm a person with claustrophobia down before this procedure.

Specifically, a physician can prescribe short- to medium-acting benzodiazepines, like Ativan or Temesta, to calm a patient down before an MRI. Typically, a person with claustrophobia will take a benzodiazepine an hour or two before the MRI and then take a second benzodiazepine immediately before the MRI.


The Cleveland Clinic. "Anxiety Disorder Services." 2013. Accessed November 2013.

University of Maryland Medical Center. "Phobia--simple/specific." May 2013. Accessed November 2013.

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