According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 11% of the population suffers from claustrophobia, and 75-90% percent are women. For some people, it passes and never returns, but for others, it’s incapacitating.
What is claustrophobia?
Claustrophobia is an anxiety disorder involving irrational fears of having no escape or being trapped. It, unfortunately, brings on panic attacks triggered by various stimuli, such as MRIs, elevators, and other small spaces. Some people are even affected by tight clothing, riding in crowded cars, subways, buses, and rooms without windows.
Most people hide and suffer through claustrophobia on their own, but there’s nothing to be ashamed of. In addition to talking to friends, family, and your physician, here are ten things you may try.
1. Become grounded
A&E television’s “Obsessed” therapist John Tsilimparis shared that someone having a panic attack feels as though they’re floating and experiences difficulty processing what’s real. This is referred to as “derealization”—an “unnerving feeling of being disoriented.” Tsilimparis suggests those suffering from these symptoms “get grounded in something that feels tangible” (like touching your keys or a doorframe).
Other options include sitting or lying flat on the ground, removing your shoes and walking around barefoot, or doing what Bruce Willis’ character did in Die Hard—making fists with your feet. Take a look at the clip here: https://www.eyemediaarticle.com/exercises-you-can-do-at-your-computer/ (I swear, it works, and I fly several times a month).
2. Talk yourself down
People often joke about talking to yourself, but it can actually help when trying to get through the panic caused by claustrophobia. Studies have indicated that using statements such as “I’m already okay” and “this is temporary” help diffuse panic. Buddhist teachers often suggest using such statements and affirmations in order to condition ourselves to be ready to deal with anxiety.
3. Learn deep breathing and yoga
A Harvard University study indicated that levels of two stress hormones—cortisol and corticotropin—were greatly reduced when yoga was regularly practiced by anxiety sufferers. Simple breathing techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing (aka belly breathing) can help prevent hyperventilation and other symptoms of claustrophobia. You don’t have to be flexible to start yoga—it’s for everyone, as I share in this article: http://www.fitagain.net.au/yoga-for-inflexible-people/
4. Face your fears
I once worked with a hypnotist who asked that I try hanging out in small spaces on purpose, in an effort to desensitize myself to the discomfort I usually feel. Some people respond well to this treatment, so give it a try. For example, if you dislike elevators, try getting in one with a friend and just leave the door open.
Stand there for a bit, talk, and breathe deeply, then get out and walk away. Try that a few times a week for two weeks, then get in and take it up or down just one floor, increasing your exposure gradually over time. Many people find that slowly building up a comfort level helps to squash their fears.
5. Use visualization instead
If you’re not ready to directly face your fear just yet, visualization techniques may be a great place to begin. Feelings of dread can be crippling, so work on relaxation techniques using soft music and breathing to picture yourself in the space or scenario that stresses you out. See yourself smiling, arriving at your destination alive and well.
The phobic trigger is there in your mind, but you don’t let it freak you out. In some cases, simply programming yourself over time helps to bring down the anxiety associated with claustrophobia, helping you to feel okay about progressing to the techniques described in tip four above.
With the modeling technique, the person dealing with a phobia learns coping techniques by mimicking someone else (e.g. a therapist, friend, or family member). The patient observes how others are able to function and get through the situation, witnessing other people’s safe, successful experiences. Over time, using this “buddy system” helps people suffering from anxiety to face their triggers alone.
Modeling basically amounts to going through the experience with a helper, watching as someone else gently shows you how they’re able to breathe and relax while confronting the catalyst for your anxiety. Another example would be watching a friend take an elevator alone, while they live video chat with you.
7. Work with a therapist
Sometimes, an impatient friend or family member will try to forcefully have you “just get over” your claustrophobia—some people struggle to understand how something they deem innocuous and safe can terrify someone else. In this scenario, read up on local clinics and counseling centers, and seek out a therapist who’ll best suit your needs. Sometimes, it’s best to work with a pro and feel safe sharing your concerns.
Sometimes, meditation and yoga can’t kick in fast enough. I’m a believer in working with a varied toolbox when coping with anxiety and phobias. Under the supervision of a physician, it’s okay to have low doses of tranquilizers on hand for flights, subway rides, and so on. Always work with your doctor, follow their directions, and never obtain medications illegally.
9. Keep a journal
Writing heals—it’s that simple. I believe in the power of using a journal to write about your dreams, hopes, and fears. Try to sit quietly for 5-10 minutes a day and just let your thoughts flow like water out of a pen and onto paper. Let it out—write about the things that frighten or upset you. Write about what you’d like to change, and how you’d prefer to feel. Journaling helps you to attain clarity.
10. Chill out
I’ve yet to try this one, but it sounds awesome. Some therapists swear by having patients hold an ice cube in one hand (wrapped in a paper towel) as long as you can stand it. Switch to your other hand, focus on the discomfort diminishing in the first hand, and your attention will shift from the pain and stress you experience from the stimuli or situation that made you anxious.
In sum, the best way to get a hold of your reactiveness and fears is to know you’re not alone; many people suffer from claustrophobia, but it is something you can remedy. Be patient and kind with yourself, and you’ll be on the right path in no time.