Katie Reddenklau, of Waihopai School, asks :-

Why are some people claustrophobic?

Sarah Romans, of the Department of Phsychological Medicine at Otago University, responded.

Claustrophobia is an excessive fear of closed spaces. The word comes from the Latin word - claudere, meaning to shut and the ancient Greek work - phobos, meaning fear.

There are many phobias, or irrational fears. Common ones involve animals (for example spiders or mice), heights, blood or air travel. A person with a phobia becomes extremely anxious when close to the feared object. When humans are excessively anxious, they have symptoms such as feeling short of breath, sick in the stomach and a fear of getting out of control. It can be extremely distressing.

We do not yet know the causes of claustrophobia exactly. Research shows that there are family, experiential and cognitive factors. Anxiety problems tend to run in families. One member may be phobic about dogs, another claustrophobic. This suggests both a genetic tendency to get anxious more easily and learning to be excessively anxious from older family members.

There is no doubt that people who have had a bad experience within a small space become very anxious about them. I talked to a claustrophobic man who, as a child, was punished by being locked in a small cupboard under the stairs.

The way people think about things is very important. Some people locked in a small space may later tell themselves how terrible and awful it was, and get nervous about going into a small space again.

Claustrophobia can be easily treated with therapy, and with medication if necessary. Therapy involves getting the phobic person to change their ideas about the danger and fearfulness of a small space. A person with claustrophobia should be encouraged to visit their family doctor who will refer them to a specialist.