by Jens
Going towards the light.

Claustrophobia is the irrational fear of enclosed spaces. The fear is secondary to the irrational part of the definition. Many people with claustrophobia will go out of their way to avoid enclosed spaces or perceived closed spaces. I have become a master at trying to talk myself into tight spaces with mixed results.

How does claustrophobia impact your life?

I suffer from claustrophobic tendencies. I have trouble watching underwater films. I can’t talk about caves, closets, or tight spaces with my shoes on (for some reason this is really important; like somehow my feet being able to breathe will give oxygen to the rest of my body), and don’t get me started on the whole coffin business. I am pretty sure I have scarred my kids and they are at a complete loss as to how to inter my remains. I have a strict “pine box with nails-no screws” policy. I would prefer to be buried with my face out of the ground. Of course, being left in a tree or someplace with a nice breeze is preferable to the box.

I like to think I am reasonable and that I can conquer my claustrophobia when I absolutely must. I do have a few—very few—success stories. One time while hiking in Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, I came to a slot canyon—ok, it wasn’t really a canyon. It was more like a slot space on the trail, like a long dark hallway in a dungeon. I couldn’t see where it ended. There was not very much light at the end, even at noon. I tried to enter a couple of times, only to be forced out by the lack of elbow room. I stood at the entrance and catalogued my options. I could run through it, but it was a rocky slope, and I was sure I could not run fast enough to make a breeze. I could turn back, but that felt like losing. As I stood there, I had this almost uncontrollable urge to take my shoes off. The tight space seemed to warrant more than just feet that could breathe. I felt like maybe I needed more breathable skin exposed and considered running barefoot, with no clothes on through the tight space. In the end I am proud to say I walked quickly to the end of the slot, with clothes and shoes on, but it was so difficult for me that I ended up hiking an additional seven miles to avoid having to pass back through that portion of the trail.

The first time I had claustrophobia, my family was visiting Utah from our home in Texas. We ventured to The Timpanogos Cave National Monument, near Provo, Utah. It is an amazingly beautiful hike up the side of a mountain that leads to a cave and the trail through the cave goes back down to the trailhead. Having lived most of my early years in Texas, the cave and the hike up to it were exciting and new. My sisters and I hiked, laughed, and teased each other as we walked up the mountain to the cave entrance. As we entered, my mom gave us the “church look” –the be calm and stay quiet look. As I turned around to make a face at my sister, my world came crashing down. The park ranger who had been mildly amused by our antics up until this moment, shut the door to the cave entrance, pulled a large ring of keys from his pocket AND LOCKED THE DOOR!

My only memory of that day, besides the long, lonely walk back down the mountain by myself, is pounding my fists against the old wooden door and screaming, “Let me out of here!” Honestly, I am not sure if that is a true memory or the nightmare memory I have created–all I know is that my family acknowledges that I went “a little nuts” and left the cave at a very fast trot. I made it to the car about 45 minutes before my family.

Fast forward thirty years, and I am a young women’s leader. We are on a spiritual retreat camping in central Utah. One of the activities is to visit a cavern. I called it a cavern during the planning, during the drive and all the way to the visitor’s center, when the reality hit me that a cavern is just a spacious word for cave. I told myself to just do what needed to be done. After all, I survived childbirth–hard could a cave really be? My fear as a child was just that- childish- and as a adult I could put my big girl pants on and walk through the cave like an adult.

There were a couple of sleepless nights where I contemplated all the ways I could be prepared for a claustrophobic episode. I made a list:  1) open toe shoes are important; toes breathe better in the open. 2) I could rent a small oxygen tank to carry with me in a backpack. 3) I could bring a very bright flashlight-air is better when you can see the space it has, and 4) I considered bringing extra-large two-gallon Ziploc bags full of air, that I could use for emergencies. Other than those few panic-filled moments, I was determined not to be claustrophobic in public. I would walk through the cave entrance and not turn around until I reached the end of the very safe and oxygen rich trail.

I became so confident in my determination to be rational I made a bargain with one of the young women in the group who had expressed some concern about going through a cave. I even went to the extreme of making a pinky promise. I told her, “You make it through the cave, and I will be right there with you. We can do this together!” and I meant it –truly.

I boldly marched about 10 steps into the cave, when my whole body began to tremble, and tears welled up in my eyes. I lost focus and I became a crying hyperventilating mess of anxiety. In my dream memory, I am clawing my way back out of the cave pushing aside young men and young women and climbing over their prone bodies to make it back down the ramp that led to the cave entrance. One of us made it through the cave that day, and it was not me.

Irrational fear or not, it is mine and I will own it. When I was young, my biggest fear was that NASA would force me to be an astronaut and I would have to travel to the moon in a lunar module. As an adult, I just think about how unpleasant it must be to be buried, even if I am mostly dead.



What are the treatments for Claustrophobia?

Many people never have a formal diagnosis for more common phobias; they just go out of their way to avoid things that can trigger a reaction. When the occasions are random and the effects of the panic are not dangerous and debilitating, living with the phobia and not seeking treatment is fine. It is a great conversation starter at family gatherings, and you will be able to provide hours of amusement for those who find your phobia entertaining.

However, if you do work for NASA and desire to become an astronaut and need to figure out how you will be able to wear the space suit without having a heart attack, there are some forms of treatment that can help. The treatment for claustrophobia usually includes talk therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy explores thoughts, feelings and behavior and develops practical ways of effectively dealing with phobias.

Medication may also be necessary in extreme cases. You may need to speak to a doctor or psychiatrist to get the correct medication for the symptoms you experience..  

How do I cope with a panic attack?

There are several ways of coping with a panic attack. One of the best ways for me to deal with a bad episode of claustrophobia is to close my eyes and take several deep, slow breaths. This worked very well at the cave-like entrance to the Indiana Jones ride at California Adventures, but it is not a great tactic for driving through tunnels in Colorado. For tunnel driving, I open the window and turn the air conditioner on full blast into my face and assure myself that the air coming from the vents is pure oxygen.

Panic attacks are very real and can feel like a sudden illness or a heart attack. It is helpful to focus on something that is visible and safe. Concentrating on a pleasant smell or touching something cool can be helpful. Focusing on your senses can help with the anxiety–include touching, seeing, smelling, hearing, and tasting. The symptoms of a panic attack can last between 5 minutes and thirty minutes.


There are a few standard family stories that come out when we are together about how irrational my fear is, and I laugh with everyone else, because it is hilarious–just not at the time. In the moment I am just trying to survive in a world where the oxygen in the room can be sucked out in a few seconds by a crowd of overly excited circus performers. NYC elevators catch me off guard sometimes and I start demanding that people stop talking, because the air is getting “used up.” I have been known to walk up 20 flights of stairs because the elevator got too crowded. There are places I will never see, like the top of the St. Louis Arch. I studied the transportation system through the arch and according to MY calculations–there is not enough air and the ride is too long to really survive.

I accept the limitations of my life and appreciate the fact that I can hold a tarantula if I want and not lose any sleep. As far as phobias go–if I don’t want to visit Mars or be a cruise director (You do NOT want to know how dangerous it is to have a large city in a box on the water), my life is very full and happy. We’ll see how I survive my burial though.

2 Responses

  1. I actually have been with you when you have gone through those episodes as we can call them. You were so irrational and hilarious! Your story brought back a lot of memories that make me laugh every time I think about them. You crack me up!

  2. It’s only irrational to those who live in an alternative state of reality. They who have not experienced the/a fear so debilitating physical, mental and emotional health are affected. An overwhelming seizure of your senses, control over ones self ceases to exist.
    Who are we allowing to define “irrational” for our very personal experiences? What’s “normal”, vs What’s not? Yikes, let’s not go there 😬
    Shoes on or off, any measure of comfort (let’s go with clothes on) for you that calms – run with it.
    Buen hecho Chica Che’

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