How can I cure my claustrophobia?
April 25, 2008 2:48 PM   Subscribe

Can I cure my adult-onset claustrophobia by myself, without the help of a therapist?

I am a female in my mid 30s who never suffered from any sort of claustrophobia until a few months ago. I was at a dinner in a very crowded dining hall- to make a long story short, I was in effect "trapped" at my table because I was sitting in the corner and the chairs on either side of me were tightly against the wall with no wiggle room- meaning that there was no way I could have gotten out until all the people next to me got up and left, and I would have been trapped there for at least an hour, until the end of the meal.

The more I thought about this, the panickier I got. Finally, I got very light-headed- I can only describe the feeling in my head as my brain screaming, odd as that sounds. I knew that if I didn't get out of there I would pass out, even though I have never passed out in my life. Luckily, only a few people had sat down at that point so I was able to push my way out to a seat on the other side of the table, where I was fine.

That was my first ever experience with claustrophobia, but it was the start of something terrible. Ever since it happened, I have been thinking about it and making myself crazy- and making the claustrophobia worse. I can no longer be in any situation where I am "trapped"- for example, I was on the bus sitting next to the window- someone sat next to me and after a few minutes I couldn't stand the trapped feeling anymore and had to switch to another seat.

It's not being in a small room that bothers me- it's being effectively trapped by other people. I've gone to movies my whole life and sat in the middle of a row with no problem- but after trying this recently, I had to move to an aisle seat because the trapped feeling starting driving me crazy again. I felt that lightheadedness, that "brain screaming" feeling again and couldn't sit there a minute longer.

I don't want to live this way. In a few weeks I have an airplane trip planned. You know after the plane lands, when everyone is standing up, waiting for the door to open? The thought of being in that situation, "trapped" by a planefull of people, scares the hell out of me. Just the thought of it makes my heart beat faster, and my face feels flushed- the precursor to the lightheaded, "brainscreaming" feeling. What's worse, I'm starting to get worried about being trapped on the plane, even when everyone is sitting down, which means the claustrophobia must be getting worse. I have been on hundreds of flights and have NEVER had this fear before.

Is there anything I can do to get rid of this horrible phobia? I'd rather do it on my own as I'm sure a therapist would be very expensive, though it might come to that one day if I can't beat this thing.

How can I get rid of this phobia?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I had adult onset of claustrophobia after being trapped in a crowded subway car. I was very similar to you--being trapped by people was my big trigger. I've never gotten therapy for it, and I wouldn't say I've gotten rid of it, but here's what helped me.

First, panic is a self-perpetuating thing. At this point, you're panicking about panicking. Being conscious of this helped me deal with it. Second, I learned some breathing exercises. I read somewhere that you can't have the physical symptoms of panic if you're breathing slowly. This may or may not be true, but it made sense to me (ie, the flushing and the heart pounding go hand in hand with faster breathing; slowing the breathing calms the whole system down). Third, be aware of when the thoughts try to creep in, and try not to let them in. I would sometimes think of the panic thoughts as almost physical things that would try to come in, and my brain would want to grab them and hold on; they're unpleasant and you know they're unpleasant but they have this intense pull that is hard to resist. This, obviously invites panic. Instead I would mentally sort of turn away from the panic thought and re-focus on the breathing exercise. However, I knew the thoughts were still there just below the surface, and I'd think, "How long can I ignore them? I can't possibly ignore them for [insert long time period here]." Again, panicking about panicking. I would re-focus by not thinking about the long time period and just think about NOW and BREATHING. Fourth, I made small concessions to my claustrophobia. This seems kind of like giving in to it, I guess, but to me it was sort of like a gradual or partial exposure thing. Planes and subways might still make me a little antsy, but if I sit on an aisle seat, I'm only antsy and not panicky. It gave me more confidence in the scary situations.

Now, I didn't come up with all this on my own. I read a ton of stuff about anxiety and panic and kind of picked and chose what made sense to me. I was several years ago, so I don't remember what I read. However, if you can find some practical "dealing with panic" materials, you'll probably get some ideas.
posted by Mavri at 3:12 PM on April 25, 2008

While a therapist would be the best option for you as they have experience in handling this sort of thing, I can understand the cost factor.

I'll give you a few recommendations, and ideas to consider:

Right now you have to understand that by premeditating your panic, you will only make it worse. You should try your best to avoid thoughts like these, even if it involves, in your head, saying "STOP" when a thought like this comes about. You know how excitement builds about something the more mental energy you put into anticipating it? The same thing applies to panic.

You always have the possibility of pursuing the drug route, as there are minor tranquilizers which are used with great success for situations like the plane ride when you have a feeling it will happen. These will keep your nervous system from over-reacting, and will keep your physical self in a state of calm, in which case you only have to bring your thoughts into the same peaceful place. You can speak to a physician or your family doctor about this, they may agree it can be helpful for some of your claustrophobic attacks.

You might want to consider practicing deep breathing. This will come in handy when you have times like sitting on the bus, and if you happen to be trapped, or are feeling brave enough to stay where you are and tough it out, you can simply calm your body by focusing on the breathing. On the all, you will need to eventually come to terms with it, and the only way you will ever "cure" yourself of this ailment, is to desensitize yourself to the situations which cause you claustrophobic feelings by simply forcing yourself to remain in them, and relaxing while you are there. This will train your body to recognize that it's really not a threat, as well as to help you realize your own courage.
posted by tybeet at 3:12 PM on April 25, 2008

I've had a probably a few hundred panic attacks in my life, and you describe the feeling very well. The sensation of panic is extremely uncomfortable, but it is not harmful or dangerous. It does pass. When I have an attack, I repeat to myself, "This is just a feeling, I am not in danger. This feeling will pass." I also consciously pay attention to my breathing and try to slow it down, and try to distract myself (listening to the radio in the car, or reading on an airplane.) Also, Xanax or Ativan can help you get over the hump of something like an airplane flight, and once you've been through it and nothing bad has happened, the next one is much easier.

That said, my panic attacks were much more frequent before I had some cognitive-behavioral therapy - they're very rare now - and I really did find therapy helpful. You might be able to find someone with a sliding scale.
posted by Daily Alice at 3:19 PM on April 25, 2008

Your mind is fooling you into thinking ythat you are indeed in grave danger when you are in fact not. You have of course already realised this and are asking for help. These are good first steps to cope with your anxiety. Congratulations!

This site might be a starting point.
Don't be put off by the term "simple" anxiety, your's is anxiety allright. CBT has IFAIK the best track record for treatment of anxiety.
Do not hesitate for too long before seeing a therapist, though. Anxiety is not to be taken lightly and has the potential to cripple your social life good and thorough.

Disclaimer: IANAD, but I do work in a psychiatric hospital.

Best of luck!
posted by Thug at 3:28 PM on April 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Try The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. . It's got a bunch of instructions for dealing with, well, anxiety and phobias. Try 'em. See if they help. The method mostly consists of the sorts of cognitive advice given earlier in this thread, w. some gradual increased expouse to the thing you're scared of. My impression is that in a lot of cases, you can lick a phobia pretty quickly w. this sort of approach.
posted by ManInSuit at 4:15 PM on April 25, 2008

Lifelong claustrophobe here. Never had drugs or therapy (many people who know me would suggest that this perhaps something I should try). Also have only taken one airplane flight in 12 years when it absolutely couldn't be avoided. Which brings me to my point-- you can live with this, but you need to make choices that recognize the problem. Advice above is very good; half the battle is understanding that, um, it's all in your head. Understanding this doesn't really make the feelings go away, but it does help mitigate them and deal with them when they happen. Some of it you've figured out already-- you don't want to put yourself in situations that will trigger the anxiety. Under four flights I take the stairs; I never sit in the inside seat on a bus or train unless I'm reasonably sure it won't be crowded. I don't travel by air. I use the large handicapped stall in public johns, because the small stalls trigger attacks. Etc.

If you succumb to an attack change your situation, even if it means exposing yourself somewhat. In a situation like the one you describe, you're just going to have to 'fess up-- "I'm sorry everyone, but I have to get out of my seat, I'm so sorry." Don't let fear of embarrassment keep you in your panic. Make a joke of it (guess I need to adjust my medication!). Some people will look mildly annoyed, some people will make kind and insightfully helpful remarks, some people will make stupid but well meaning remarks (like the cabin attendant on my recent flight who told me, "I've flown hundreds of times; there's nothing to be afraid of." Gosh, that made me feel so much better, because I had never before understood that hundreds of thousands of people fly daily with no problem. She meant well. Plus, the stupidity of her remark kind of made me forget that I was freaking out.)

If you must be in an enclosed space, like an airplane for an extended period, bring lots and lots of things to do. Keep yourself distracted.
posted by nax at 4:28 PM on April 25, 2008

I had my first experience with claustrophobia on a plane a couple of years ago, after very little sleep the night before. I was stuck in the middle of the middle row of the plane on a transatlantic flight and was so exhausted and sleep-deprived that I thought "if I don't get out of this seat, I will lose my mind." Luckily, I was sitting next to my mother and climbed over her and my dad to get out and walk around the aisles for a bit to calm myself down. On the return flight, I insisted on an aisle seat and ended up getting the first row right behind first class, which is the best place to be -- TONS of leg room and easy to bolt and walk around without bugging anyone to get up. Now I always make sure to get that seat or at least an aisle seat. If you do get stuck in a middle seat, I agree with nax that you're just going to have to apologize for disturbing your neighbours (even if they're sleeping) and push through.

Good luck!
posted by pised at 8:45 PM on April 25, 2008

Like ManInSuit, I would also recommend The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook.

As an aside, the book is recommended by thousands of health care professionals to their clients as well.
posted by kirstk at 1:56 AM on April 26, 2008

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