Tools for Claustrophobia
First of all, forget about trying to analyse the cause – it is not particularly relevant to getting rid of the condition. Then approach the issue systematically.
You need to believe in yourself and in your ability to free yourself from the claustrophobia response. Remind yourself frequently that it is a learned response – a response which you accidentally ‘picked up’ – and that what has been learned can be un-learned.
(1) Tools to use when not in claustrophobic situations
Examine how you usually ‘do’ the claustrophobia behaviour. Yes, I know you don’t do it deliberately but you do do it – even though the process occurs automatically. It is your brain, your body, and your emotions that are involved in this.
A typical fear-cycle
Once the trigger is encountered you rapidly go through a series of steps. These vary from person to person but will typically involve an escalating cycle such as:
- you think of, or see, the the trigger
- remember past moments of being uncomfortable in similar situations
- begin awfulising self-talk
- imagine a disaster movie of what is likely to happen
- feel awful
- wonder if people are noticing your distress
- imagine what they might think and do if you lost control
- imagine what it would be like to lose control.
Many people will probably then re-run this sequence a number of times faster and faster – and feel terrible. And yet all of this all happens automatically!
The mechanics of your fear-cycle
Remember you are studying the ‘mechanics’ of your fear. You are examining how and not why you do it.
It usually involves lots of fearful anticipating – thinking ahead about all the awful things that could or might occur! What if I got a panic attack and couldn’t get out of this room quickly – I might lose control completely etc. So you talk to yourself about what might happen and/or mentally visualise such events.
This self talk and imaging then activates the body’s fear-handling process – the ‘fight or flight response’ – and you’re on your way to feeling really uncomfortable.
Have you noticed how you do it? Great! You are on your way to eradicating the response. (Keep reminding yourself that it is just a learned response and not an illness.)
Pin-point the trigger(s)
The next step is easy because you’re probably an expert in this area: how do you know when to begin the claustrophobic mechanism?
To be claustrophobic you have to ‘know’ when to have the fear. There has to be a trigger that alerts your mind-body that it is time to start the feelings and thoughts. The trigger can be approaching a threatening situation or can even be thinking about a past or forthcoming situation involving a lack of escape route.
So, for you, what is the first thing you see or hear before the whole series of unpleasant physical and mental mechanisms kick in? (Do remember, it is not what do you first feel – the feeling is just the result of the rapid self-talk and visualising activity.)
The question is what you see or hear that results in the fearful feeling!
Is it the sight of the crowded lift? Or the moment when the cabin staff start pushing the door of the plane closed? Or when the meeting room goes silent just before the speaker begins?
Most people will have more than one trigger. One person I worked had a whole list – dozens of them. If you do have quite a few simply pick the trigger you most commonly encounter.
Arrange the triggers in a sequence
You have now established the manner in which your fear cycle starts and then spirals upwards into a panic.
Next you need to identify a whol;e serie4s of increasingly uncomfortable situations, culminating in the full blown claustrophobic reaction. Take, for example, a fear of being in a crowded lift (‘elevator’ in US English). Let’s say these are the stages in your increasing fear.
- Approaching the lift
- Watching the numbers change as it approaches your floor
- Imagining it being crowded
- The doors opening and people waiting inside
- Entering the lift
- The life stopping at another floor and more people getting on board
- Panicking about needing to get off
- Fleeing from the lift before it reaches your floor.
You have also established your current (8) triggers and arranged these in order of increasing intensity.
Next begin using this ‘hierarchy’ of triggers to desensitise yourself to these situations. This means using a method called Systematic Desensitisation to eradicate your fearful response to the situations that cause you fear.
It is called ‘systematic’ because you do it in a very methodical manner. You first work on the least threatening situation. In this case it is approaching the lift.
This is your first challenge. And you can do the following in imagination or in real life – or both. Let’s do it in imagination:
- Relax fully – sitting or lying
- Imagine approaching the life
- As soon as you begin to feel edgy or nervous open your eyes and sit or stand up.
Repeat steps 1-3 a few times until you can imagine approaching the lift and still feel at ease. This may take one session or you may need to do it over a few sessions.
Only when you are completely comfortable imagining approaching the lift do you then do it in real life – in vivo. Pick a quiet time of day and in a quiet building with few people around. It may help to have a friend standing a short distance away. Begin approaching the lift and as soon as you feel uncomfortable stop and withdraw to the starting point. Again, this may take a few attempts before you are comfortable approaching the life in real life.
When you can comfortably reach the door a few times you’re ready for the next step – calling the lift and watching the numbers as it approaches. But, once again, do this in imagination first. Then in real life.
Systematic Desensitisation is s-l-o-w
Yes, it is very slow. But it is thorough and it does work.
Yet, when you think how long you have had the phobia and how much difficulty it has caused you, well, what’s the hurry if you can get rid of it ‘systematically’?
Patiently un-learn your way to freedom
Once they start to master the first few steps in their hierarchy many people spoil their chances of success through impatience. They want to get rid of all of their fears NOW!
Even with the assistance of a skilled professional it is likely to take a number of sessions to eradicate the claustrophobic response if you have had it for some time. After all, you’ve been ‘practising’ for months or years.
So allow a realistic amount of time – a few hours with the assistance of a professional and up to a couple of months if you are doing it yourself and doing a little practise every day.
And, once again, what’s your hurry? Either way you’re just a short few steps away from freedom!
Believe in yourself!
Finally it is critically important that you do believe you can overcome this. There really is no point in trying things! You must decide that you can and you will eradicate this fear from your life and begin living a normal life again. Just trying techniques or doing the rounds of therapists is wasting your time and possibly your money. This requires full commitment – full dedication.
‘Believing it’ means you can literally visualise a realistic end-result – of you living normally and feeling quite at ease in the situations that currently cause you anxiety. Begin creating this image today – and use it as a beacon to draw you forward through the normal ups and the downs of releasing yourself from a phobic habit.
(Incidentally, because it is so slow, Systematic Desensitisation is not the method I would use when working with someone. But it is ideal if you are working on your own without professional assistance. If you are looking for professional assistance there are many types of therapy for claustrophobia. And I would suggest that you begin by seeking a therapist who, in addition to her or his professional qualifications, has at least Master Practitioner Certification in NLP. The NLP + therapy method can be quick.)
(2) Tools and tips for emergencies
These are some ways of managing the symptoms of claustrophobia if you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation. Although they are not really ‘fixes’ they can be very useful in managing your thoughts and feelings so that the situation doesn’t become over-whelming.
These techniques will work better if you practise them while you’re feeling fine. That way you’re prepared and can simply switch them on when needed.
- Avoid deep breathing – that just makes things worse.
- Avoid breath-holding – while not as bad as deep breathing it will cause you to become more tense.
- (Read our breathing section Breathing Methods web pages right now – so that you have the information available for emergency situations.)
- Progressively slow your breath and make it more shallow – to conserve carbon dioxide, our natural tranquilliser).
Physical relaxing techniques
- Relax your shoulders. Let your arms hang and imagine they are heavy wet raincoats hangins from pegs (your shoulders).
- Relax your face – jaw, forehead.
- Relax your eyes. Blink more to moisten them. Let your eyelids droop very slightly – just a millimetre or so.
- Use slow and calming self-talk to reassure yourself: it’s fine, I’m relaxing and letting go, these feelings will pass shortly, I’m just going to focus on relaxing while the situation is resolved, etc.
- Pay attention to things ‘outside’ you – your surroundings, other people, the décor, etc.
- If you are alone (or very brave) hum or sing.
- If possible chat with other people e.g. if you’re stuck in a life (elevator)
Remember: each time you manage your thoughts and feelings when in a claustrophobic situation you weaken the claustrophobia habit.