Most statistics claim that upwards of 10% of people are claustrophobic. If you’re not one of them, you might think this is a fear of small spaces. But it’s more complicated. It’s an irrational fear of being somewhere you can’t escape from.
Often the places that trigger claustrophobia are tiny ones: tunnels and caves, elevators and graves (nobody feels good in a grave). But the place could be as large as a plane or a subway tunnel. For some, the feeling is sparked by a turtleneck sweater. (If that’s you, just stop wearing turtlenecks – they’re not attractive, anyway.) For others, it’s an automatic car wash. (My dog has that one.)
It’s not being squished that’s scary. It’s the terror of what could happen to you if you couldn’t get out. (“Oh my god, I can’t get out! I’ll be wearing this ugly turtleneck sweater till I die!”)
Some people feel claustrophobic in crowds. Some feel claustrophobic in rooms without windows. Some people feel claustrophobic in relationships – but usually that’s just a metaphor.
I saw a very cool exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada, Martin Creed’s Work No. 202, that was a room full of black balloons, from floor to ceiling, from wall to wall. Patrons went inside and pushed their way through the balloon-filled space. You couldn’t see anything, you quickly lost all sense of direction, and the idea, “What if I never get out of here?” did come calling. It was totally cool. Claustrophobics wouldn’t like that exhibit.
For claustrophobics, the fear is the same, no matter what the trigger. Some common symptoms are: accelerated heart rate, sweating, dizziness, dry mouth, increased blood pressure, trouble breathing, and general panic. These people do not want to be trapped in a confined space. And since another common symptom is the urge to go to the toilet, you don’t want to be trapped in that confined space with them.
Claustrophobics may end up organizing their lives around their fear – checking for escape routes in every room they enter, hanging out by the door at every party, avoiding public toilets and elevators and traffic jams, not going to that MRI appointment.
Exposure therapy for claustrophobia can begin the same way as exposure therapy for animal phobias: by looking at pictures. (But not pictures of animals – that won’t help.) Movies where people take an elevator or climb through a tunnel and nothing scary happens are a good start. DO NOT watch any of the kazillion scary movies about people trapped in scary places. “Don’t go in there” is not a message you want reinforced.
If you can’t find “The Happy Elevator Ride” on Netflix, it’s easy to find the live version. Watch people go in and out of elevators – see how they are smiling and still in one piece?
Eventually it’s time to participate. With positive affirmations, rational reminders and a trustworthy friend at your side, expose yourself to the thing you fear. Start with brief exposures and work up to longer periods of time. (That might work with relationships, too.)
If you’re claustrophobic, or you’ve conquered this fear, leave a message on this blog during Fearless February and you could win a copy of 28 Tricks for a Fearless Grade 6, a middle-grade comedy in which no one is buried alive, trapped in a cave with mutants, or stuck in an ugly turtleneck sweater.