Claustrophobia

Claustrophobia: fear of being closed in

Claustrophobia is usually described as a fear of enclosed places. A more accurate description might be ‘a fear of not having an easy escape route’ because for anyone who experiences this phobia this is the predominating feature – you feel a need to be able to get out or get home, quickly.

Let’s get something quite clear at the outset – this is not an illness and it can be eradicated.

A ‘learned response’

Claustrophobia is a learned response to being in certain situations. A response that is powerful, uncomfortable, embarrassing, inconvenient, debilitating at times, perhaps even seriously debilitating – but still a learned response. And just as you can learn to have a particular response you can un-learn it.

What’s more, it’s likely that you can do this for yourself without professional help. Good professional help is likely to make things easier and a lot quicker but, for most people, it is not essential.

Yes, this is a sweeping statement – that you, yourself, can resolve your fear. But, as you’ll read below, the ‘mechanics’ of the condition are relatively straightforward and once you have recognised these in yourself you can begin changing them and dissolving the fear.

So how do we ‘learn’ to fear being closed in?

There are many different ways in which we can learn to have this concern – the following are a few examples:

Many people develop the condition as a result of being ‘trapped’ in an uncomfortable situation such as a stalled lift (elevator), an uncomfortable or frightening air plane journey, an overcrowded room, etc.

Some, additionally, were experiencing panic attacks at the time when they were trapped – which added to their fear.

Some people who go through a period of having panic attacks begin to become very focused on the need to be able to get home quickly so they begin avoiding any situation where the route home will not be quick and easy.

What’s it like to have this fear?

  • It’s a constant search for escape routes…
  • On entering a room, hallway, lift (elevator), etc. you first scan for the escape routes and will usually position yourself as near to this as possible.
  • Air travel becomes difficult or impossible – you dread that moment when the doors ‘clunk’ shot and you’re ‘trapped’ for the duration of the journey.
  • Car journeys can be difficult, particularly if they require you to travel on a motorway or even dual carriageway since it is not as easy to ‘escape’ from these. Similarly you may start to avoid travelling at busy times so that you do not get trapped in a traffic jam.
  • Hospital checks involving scans where you are slowly moved through the scanning machine may be only possible with sedative medication.
  • If you live or work on an upper floor you get plenty of exercise because you are unable to take the lift (elevator). And even if you are able to travel in lifts it is done with difficulty and you’ll likely wait if the lift appears crowded.
  • And it’s not just small rooms – even a large room, if filled with people, will pose a threat unless you can position yourself near a doorway. So meetings and parties are avoided.
  • In extremes you cannot be in a room unless the door is left ajar.
  • It is often linked with conditions which have a strong physical element, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS),  where there is a realistic need to be able to escape quickly to get to a toilet. In such cases, even if the condition subsides, the fear of not having an escape route may continue because you now have ‘learned’ the claustrophobic response.
  • If you experience panic attacks or social phobia these will usually have a strong claustrophobia element since you fear that is you have a ‘funny turn’ everybody will notice you and this could lead to you losing control of yourself.

Okay, so what can I do about it?

Right, you have to deal with this on three fronts:

  1. Believe that you can eradicate this learned response. If you believe it is possible then it is. If you believe you have to ‘learn to live with it’ then that will be true for you. (It’s the old rule – whether you believe you can or believe you can’t – you’re right!)
  2. So decide you are going to deal with this energetically and systematically – and are going to free yourself from claustrophobia for good. However long it takes. Whatever it takes in terms of effort, determination, etc. You decide that you’re not going to be a patient patient any longer!
  3. Practise your management skills in comfortable locations – not while trying to handle a claustrophobia bout. So you aim to do a lot of preparation work (check here). And there is some more information here.