How I (Mostly) Cured My Claustrophobia

It helped to realize space does not equal room

Photo by Wendy Wei from Pexels

The flight was full and I had the center seat

My heart had begun jackhammering the moment the doors closed. The soothing pull of gravity during takeoff, its effect like a temporary weighted blanket, gave way to free-floating semi-weightlessness now that we were at cruising altitude. My amygdala flashed its emergency lights, blinding my brain in its panicky glare. In response, my inner voice muttered a litany familiar from so many previous flights:

You’re in a metal tube 30,000 feet in the air. You’re stuck. You’re trapped. There’s no space, people are all around you, jammed up against you. You’re freaking out right now and everybody knows it and they’re not going to let you out and it’s your fault for getting on this airplane, what were you thinking . . .

And so it went. This was what made at least the first twenty minutes of every flight I took, for years, a waking nightmare. Luckily, human physiology can only sustain that level of fear for so long. Eventually, my heart rate would return to something like normal, my breathing would slow a bit, and I’d get through the flight without my seatmates having to call the attendant. But my nervous system, having received a walloping dose of catecholamines and adrenaline, would remain on alert, twitchy and apprehensive for the rest of the journey.

After all, I knew I’d have to fly back home. The residual apprehension would darken every trip. I refused to stop traveling, but the excitement and joy I’d once associated with it were now freighted with dread.

I wasn’t afraid of flying. I was afraid of the panic it triggered

I knew that my aversion to tight spaces was nothing more than anxiety in another guise. My rational brain understood that air travel is far safer than most modes of transport I commonly used and that statistically, I’m in more danger while driving to the airport than as a passenger on a jet. But as anyone with even a moderate anxiety disorder can tell you, the rational mind stands no chance against a limbic system on the fritz.

I wasn’t in an airplane when claustrophobia first sank its chilly claws into my psyche. I was a junior in high school, eagerly stepping onto the elevator that would take a friend and me to the top of San Francisco’s Coit Tower. It was summertime, a hot day by the city’s standards, and the elevator was airless and crowded. And once it got underway, there were no floors, no stops, no getting out until we reached the top.

Coit Tower isn’t especially tall as famous monuments go — about 210 feet from its base on Telegraph Hill — but that creaking, lurching ascension lasted an eternity. When the doors slid open at last, I wobbled onto the observation deck, utterly unable to focus on the view or the fresh air or anything but the sickening realization that the only way back down required being immured in that hellish elevator again.

I learned to live with the fear as though it were my due

Once inducted into the ranks of the anxious, I couldn’t seem to get myself discharged. Eventually, I concluded that I was a lifer. While, as I said, I refused to stop traveling — ditto riding elevators, attending big parties, or crowded restaurants —I accepted that life, for me, came pre-packaged with a certain amount of terror. I simply had to put up with it. In common with many sufferers of anxiety and panic, or like a long-term victim of abuse, I blamed myself for my weakness, my inability to maintain control over my emotions.

When my inner demons came out to play in the wee hours, their favorite torture was to induce me to fret over situations I was vanishingly unlikely to find myself in. Like, what if some quirk of fate required me to go up in the space shuttle? Or end up in a submarine? What if, through some mischance of planning, I accidentally went spelunking?

To outside appearances, I was a confident, self-assured woman. It was my own closely-held secret that tight spaces, crowds, concerts, even stores with narrow aisles could make me miserable for minutes or hours. I never gave myself permission to let on or to avoid those situations, because that would have drawn too much attention. I worried endlessly: what was it about my frazzled psyche that demanded more physical, emotional, and mental space than a normal, modern life afforded? It took so much energy to make sure nobody else was bothered by my shameful spells or was even aware of them. What if people knew just how bull-goose loony I really was?

After years of this, something changed

As with most breakthroughs, it only seemed sudden. It took me a long time to acquire the armature that made it possible — a slowly developing foundation of therapy, conscious observation of my thoughts, and ultimately, self- compassion. I wasn’t holding out hope for a sea change in my psyche; I was just trying to get through life with fewer bouts of the whirlies.

At any rate, I was seated on an airplane, traveling alone, I forget where. It was a full flight, nighttime. I was once again in the center seat, and the guy who had the window had already closed it. So had most of the other passengers for whom this flight was merely an exercise in tedium and not a confrontation with existential angst. The space around me was reduced to inches, surrounded by an enclosed tunnel crammed with strangers.

The door closed with that whooshing, sucking sound of finality. The attendants droned through the safety rituals, and then we were airborne, and in my head, the usual earworm reared its head to begin yammering:

You’re stuck in a metal tube 30,000 feet in the air . . .

Suddenly it was interrupted by a new voice, one that surprised me even as I recognized it as my own:

You’re 30,000 feet in the air. So this airplane you’re in is the perfect place to be. And look how cozy! People all around you, people just like you, all safe, all tucked in. Feel how this seat supports you and cradles you. Right now, right here, up in the air with the angels, you have all you need.

My whole body relaxed as my grateful psyche bathed in a sense of well-being. The woman in the aisle seat was large and fleshy, and the pressure of her arm against mine was comforting, not confining.

I had very little room around me, but my mind, unclenching, had opened up. Inner space sheltered me like a vast, velvety night sky twinkling with stars. I took a deep, pleasurable sigh, reclined my seat back all of the three inches it would go, and drifted off to sleep.

That simple shift in thinking gave me all the space I needed, then and ever since. Planes, subways, jam-packed ballparks — they might not always be comfortable, especially if it’s hot, but they are no longer occasions for suppressed terror. It’s a kind of freedom that is hard to appreciate unless you’ve lost it for a time.

In January 2017, I attended the Women’s March in Washington D.C.

Amid that extraordinary experience, part of me marveled at how unperturbed I was, how curiously safe I felt. My companions and I were in the midst of a throng so vast and so tight that we were quickly split up and literally pressed shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, block after block after block. But that crowd, in its determined unity, its adamant grip on decency, on dignity, on authentic power, on hope, brought home to me even more powerfully what I’d discovered on that wonderful plane ride years before. I’d find my group eventually. Meanwhile, none of us there had much room, physically speaking. But we had all the space we claimed.

I’ll pass on the spelunking, though.

4 Comments

  1. I am reading this in the airport, waiting to board my flight back to Philly. Like you, I used to have a fear of flying. My fear was related to heights, not claustrophobia. Also like you, I got over it. We do learn Tobe gentle with ourselves as we get older…IF we pay attention and are lucky.

    • Those are the big “ifs,” Laurie — and cheers to you for not letting fear clip your wings. Yes, we learn to be gentle with ourselves, and also to be careful about to which voices in our head we choose to listen.

  2. Oh, how I hear you, Jan! We don’t fly anymore, though I have done some essential short flights in the past several years for a wedding and a few memorials for dear friends and my uncle. But one of my worst claustrophobic events was on a plane, in between a large passenger and the wall, under the low clearance of the luggage bin, with no fresh air, just stuffy, hot, stale, recycled air… However, the most pressing problem I now face on any kind of public conveyance is my chemical sensitivities. One perfumed passenger, or clothing that shared the dryer with fabric softener sheets, can cause any or all of these: watering eyes, nausea, headache, gagging, even difficulty breathing. Add my moderate claustrophobia and it is my recipe for misery. Stay safe and comfortable!!

    • So sorry, Anni — I don’t think chemical sensitivities are anything you can self-talk your way out of. Here’s to fresh air and safe travels. And however we get where we’re going, may we enjoy the ride!

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