If Your CPAP Is Causing You to Feel Claustrophobic, There Are Ways to Reduce This Feeling
The most popular—and by far, most effective—treatment for sleep apnea is CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure). More than 8 million Americans use it.
A mask is connected to a machine that provides a constant flow of pressurized air to keep your airways open and help you breathe—and sleep—more easily. However, a common side effect of wearing a CPAP mask is claustrophobia—a sense of feeling closed in, smothered, or suffocated.
Claustrophobia can also cause such symptoms as a choking sensation or shortness of breath—which are, ironically, symptoms of sleep apnea!
Says Robert Miller, Apria Healthcare Vice President of Sleep Business, “Studies reveal that people with sleep apnea are at a greater risk for claustrophobia. And 1 of every 3 people who use CPAP struggles with this phobia. As a result, many stop using their CPAP device.”
But it is critical for people to adhere to their therapy. Because untreated sleep apnea can lead to very serious health consequences, such as stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and depression.
This article will help you minimize any feelings of claustrophobia—to ensure you receive the treatment you need to effectively manage your sleep apnea.
Get Used to Wearing Your Mask
You want to feel comfortable with, not intimidated by, your CPAP mask. Here are a few tips to help you do just that when you first begin your CPAP therapy. Start slowly and gradually increase the time using your mask.
- Get to know your CPAP device and mask. Understand how to turn the device on, adjust settings, secure the straps, and attach the hose. Soon, this will all be second nature to you.
- Wear your mask during the day. Find a comfy chair and watch a TV show, read a book, or listen to some music. The point is to help you feel relaxed!
- Put the mask on—even just holding it to your face without securing the straps. If you feel any anxiety, move the mask away. Do this over a series of days, slowly increasing the time, until you feel comfortable.
- Now, you are ready to put on the mask and secure the straps—but don’t turn on your CPAP machine. First, get used to wearing the mask with the straps. If you feel at all anxious or panicked, remove them. But try again. Repeat this every day until you feel comfortable.
- The next step: practice breathing through the mask. Put on the mask, secure the straps so they are comfortable, attach the hose to your CPAP device, and turn it on. Now, breathe through the mask to become accustomed to the forced air. Once again, repeat until this form of breathing feels natural.
- Now, you are ready to begin your CPAP therapy when you sleep—and less likely to feel claustrophobic!
Try a Different Kind of Mask
If you continue to feel claustrophobic, talk to your doctor about the following CPAP mask options.
1. Full-face CPAP masks: for people prone to claustrophobia, these may be a little harder to get used to because they cover both your nose and your mouth. But if you are a mouth breather or need higher CPAP pressure, they are a good choice. Plus, manufacturers are now making versions that are lighter and designed to prevent moisture build-up to reduce the risk of claustrophobia.
2. Nasal pillow masks: many people with claustrophobia prefer these lightweight masks because they sit just under your nose, with minimal contact with your face. Nasal pillow masks deliver air directly into your nose, don’t block your vision, and allow you to move more freely as you sleep. Unlike full-face masks, these masks are best for people who aren’t mouth breathers and only need moderate amounts of CPAP pressure.
3. Nasal CPAP masks: this kind of mask tends to produce fewer feelings of claustrophobia because it doesn’t cover your mouth. Instead, it covers a small area from the bridge of your nose to just above your lip. Nasal masks can deliver higher CPAP pressures than nasal pillow masks. One recommendation: if you are a mouth breather, you may need to wear a chin strap to keep your mouth closed as you sleep.
Check Your CPAP Pressure Settings
When the pressure is properly set, your CPAP device can help improve the quality and quantity of your sleep every night. But if the pressure is too high or low, you may have feelings of claustrophobia. Talk with your doctor about adjusting the pressure.
Your doctor may also recommend another kind of CPAP device called BiPAP (bilevel positive airway pressure). This helps reduce claustrophobia by delivering pressurized air at two alternating levels: one level when you inhale and another when you exhale.
Also, if your CPAP machine has a ramp feature, use it. This starts at a low pressure and then gradually increases it to your prescribed pressure setting as you sleep.
Use Relaxation Techniques
Before you go to bed, try meditating, focusing on your breathing, or doing yoga to help you relax and calm your mind. These techniques are a proven way to reduce stress and anxiety. Once you are feeling relaxed, slip into bed, slip on your CPAP mask, and slip off to sleep.
Don’t Feel Confined by CPAP Claustrophobia
Claustrophobia is common among people who use CPAP therapy to treat their sleep apnea—but it can be effectively managed. Apria’s Robert Miller advises, “Dealing with CPAP claustrophobia requires time and patience. But with practice, you’ll soon be enjoying the benefits of your therapy, and that includes getting a good night’s sleep.”
1. Handzel, S. (Updated 2021, July 2). CPAP Masks and Claustrophobia: How to Overcome It. Healthgrades. https://www.healthgrades.com/right-care/sleep-disorders/cpap-masks-and-claustrophobia-how-to-overcome-it.
2. Azuse, E. (Updated 2021, June 12). Best CPAP Masks for People With Claustrophobia. Healthgrades. https://www.healthgrades.com/right-care/sleep-disorders/best-cpap-masks-for-people-with-claustrophobia.
3. Edmonds JC, Yang H, King TS, et al. Claustrophobic tendencies and continuous positive airway pressure therapy non-adherence in adults with obstructive sleep apnea. Heart Lung. 2015 Mar-Apr;44(2):100-6.
4. Sayed, Z, Summers, M. (2021, January 18). You asked, we answered: My CPAP makes me claustrophobic. Is there anything that can help? Nebraska Medicine. https://www.nebraskamed.com/sleep/you-asked-we-answered-cpap-claustrophobia.
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6. Bond, L. (Updated 2023, May). Tips for Dealing With Claustrophobia. SleepApnea.Sleep-Disorders.net. https://sleepapnea.sleep-disorders.net/living/tips-claustrophobia.
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