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How to Get Over Your Irrational Fear of Tight Spaces

Nobody likes to feel trapped, but for claustrophobes, it involves going down a much scarier wormhole

Ever been in one of those MRI machines, where you’re held down and slid into a tiny tube, with the strange whirring sound of huge, invisible magnets scanning your prone, helpless body as you’re ordered to be as still as a statue for several minutes? It’s pretty chill! Or not. Understandably, many people hate such experiences, which in more intense cases can be examples of claustrophobia.

While we commonly think of claustrophobia as a fear of tight spaces, according to psychologists, it’s really a form of agoraphobia, which is an anxiety about feeling somehow unable to escape. (Hence the fear of wide open spaces we normally associate with agoraphobia: How do you leave when it’s the same space in every direction?)

It can even manifest as the anxiety at possibly feeling anxiety about being unable to escape — a savage feedback loop! And so, we talked to a variety of people who know a thing or two about tight spaces to see if there’s an easy way out of this trap.

Zoltan Kelety, U.S. Navy submarine captain (retired), now research submarine superintendent: I never have feelings of claustrophobia. Despite the small quarters on submarines, or being underwater for months at a time, I never felt hemmed in. Despite what they show in movies, there’s no time for boredom — we’re either busy operating the ship, eating, sleeping, studying, cleaning, responding to drills or actual problems, reviewing paperwork, getting a little exercise or watching a quick movie. Our bunks (i.e., beds) are rather tomb-like, with curtains that shut you in to keep out light, but it’s one of the few places of privacy, and therefore, they’re loved by submariners.

I have witnessed claustrophobia among civilian guests on our submarines. The vertical ladder to get on a submarine is about 15 feet long. I saw a woman come down the ladder for a tour. She reached the interior deck and saw how crowded with machinery a submarine is and went right back up the ladder. A different time, we were hosting civilian guests for dinner. A woman stated she could never go underwater in a submarine. I told her that when in port, three-quarters of the submarine is below the waterline; only one quarter is above the water. In fact, the entire wardroom where we were dining at the moment was below the water. She looked a little green, excused herself and left the ship. I felt bad I’d said anything.

As officers, we use the periscope more than most of the crew, so you do get to see things far away usually daily. Otherwise, long-range vision is quite limited. On an attack submarine, the longest straight-line passageway might be 30 feet, so you’re constantly changing directions to get anywhere. You get used to squeezing by people and groups of people.

That said, it’s wonderful to return to dry land and not be confined with 130 of your closest friends. I always went for a run as soon as I could. However, I can say that I was much closer to my shipmates on submarines. We did everything together, even after returning to home base. Submariners recognize that you have to be odd to want to serve in such a place, but we depend deeply on each other for our joint safety, and I believe that inherent trust makes us closely bonded together.

Kurt Galley, tiny house manufacturer: I have people often who have never been in a tiny home — they come by ours just to see them, and you do get a reaction from a lot of people: “Wow, this is really small, I could never do this.” That’s just your standard, “This is just too small for me.” But from time to time, I’ve seen people who’ve just walked in and appeared to be in stress over being in that small of a space. I’ve had people walk in, or they walk in under the lofts — most tiny house builders make them with vaulted ceilings so you don’t feel like you’re in a small space — but once you’re in the kitchen area or underneath the loft, where the roof is six inches above your head, I’ve seen them react a little differently. Still, we have customers who come back and say that they got happier stepping down in size — they say it’s because they had to get rid of stuff, and they felt less burdened by it and by mortgages.

One of the [coping] strategies is to make your outside space as big as your indoor living space. We just build the home, but most of our customers build a deck area off their door. So in their minds, they have 200 to 300 square feet inside, but they’ve got another 200 to 300 outside. The other thing is, think about where your house is going to be oriented. We put upper windows on the sun side because light makes a big difference in a small space. So if you’re in a small space and it’s dark, it can feel really oppressive. But if you’re in a small space and it’s filled with light, it doesn’t bother you nearly as much.

Brian Heinle, a very tall guy (6-foot-8, since you asked): I’ve been way taller than everyone around me (except family members) ever since I can remember, so I guess I’ve just always been adjusting to the world. There are a lot of other situations that are annoying but don’t really deal with space. It’s more about people double-taking in the line at grocery store and shit like that. I’m just a normal fucking dude, jeez!  

I’m more disturbed vertically than horizontally — I guess that’s obvious, being a tall guy! I’m very cognizant of roofs of cars and low ceilings, they’re very uncomfortable for me. Cars are the worst, though, I feel very locked up when I’m in a small car. In fact, if I can be the lone passenger in the backseat, I’ll go there. I’m much more comfortable that way. I guess it’s because I can sprawl out across the seat, and I don’t feel like someone is breathing down my neck from the back.

Another thing is doorways. I have not not ducked going through a doorway since about 1992. And I still hit my head all the time! And if I ever find myself going into an attic, I’m literally bending at the waist at a 90-degree angle.

Kevin Chapman, anxiety therapist: People can feel claustrophobia in a room that’s quite comfortable to other people. It doesn’t actually have to be confining — it’s the interpretation that’s confining.

The therapy relies heavily on cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as exposure therapy. Exposure is done in a number of different ways, but basically what you’re teaching the person is how to confront situations that trigger the distress they’re experiencing, that teach them the adverse outcome that they’re fearing actually never happens and that they can tolerate the physiological symptoms associated with it.

In other words, we create a hierarchy of situations that are uncomfortable, which often includes elevators. We call it graduated exposure: You move from one situation to the next as your confidence increases. Yes, we absolutely confront the situations in the most savage way you can, because to be honest, what really needs to happen is you need to create this new, nonthreatening association in your brain and you’re literally testing out your feared outcome.

So if patient’s feared outcome is they’ll suffocate, pass out or be trapped and won’t be able to breathe, you put them in situations that will elicit that outcome. I’ve had people in trunks of cars. I’ve had people in caves. I’ve had people in a straitjacket. Here’s the thing: They’re all living fulfilled lives now — in a relatively short amount of time — because they confronted their fears!