General Articles


Claustrophobia victims can’t stand being shut up in trains, jaili— or even in bed. The reason: forgotten terrors of childhood

GEORGE KISKER August 15 1948
General Articles


Claustrophobia victims can’t stand being shut up in trains, jaili— or even in bed. The reason: forgotten terrors of childhood

GEORGE KISKER August 15 1948


Claustrophobia victims can’t stand being shut up in trains, jaili— or even in bed. The reason: forgotten terrors of childhood


"IT WAS Saturday morning and the barber shop was humming with activity. Suddenly a man who was being shaved jumped from the chair, grabbed a towel and rubbed the lather from his face. Then he rushed out of the shop.

The customers in the shop looked on in amazement. “What’s the matter with that fellow?” asked a man near the door. “He didn’t even take his bat and coat.” The barber who had been shaving the departed customer answered, “That happens most every time he comes in. He has ein idea that he can’t stand being closed up in small places. He’ll come back in an hour or two and I’ll finish shaving him.” The customers in the store ‘ hook their-heads and laughed.

But the fear of closed places is no laughing matter for the thousands of people who suffer from this condition. Such people not only dread being confined in small rooms, blit they can’t ride in elevators, they are afraid to travel through tunnels, they can’t sleep in Pullman cars, they are una ble to travel in airplanes and some can’t even sleep in a bed.

Some people become so panicky at being shut in that they can’t even sit at ease in a theatre or in a

large auditorium. If they go to such places at all, they must sit in an aisle seat near the door. If the door is left open, so much the better. When they find themselves in places from which they think they can’t escape, they are thrown into such a panic that they feel that they will die.

What is this morbid fear of closed places? How does it come about? And what can be done for it? Psychologists have l>een working on the answers to these questions for many years. They don’t have all the answers, but they have enough of them to help you understand the condition and to show you how you can get rid of it.

The technical name for the fear of closed places is “claustrophobia,” from the Greek “Claustrum” (a closed place) and “phobia” (fear). There are dozens of other phobias. None is seen so frequently among normal people as claustrophobia.

"The fear of being confined and closed in is the most common and widespread of ail fears,” declares Dr. Albert C. Buckley, professor of psychiatry at the Graduate School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania. “Every man, woman and child carries a little of this fear around with him. Some of us control it so that it doesn’t bother us; for others it makes Life miserable.”

Fear, in any form, is always a painful emotion. But there are two kinds. One is a “normal” fear,

such as you have when you see a truck careening toward your car. It disappears as soon as the truck passes. The second is a “pathological” fear, a disease that destroys health and happiness. It eats away at your personality, may even lead to mental and physical illness. Claustrophobia is a fear of this kind.

Claustrophobia is dangerous because it sticks with you for years unless you take steps to get rid of it. Such excessive and prolonged fear brings about conditions of your body and your mind which are injurious to your physical and mental health, even though you think you are getting along with it. Many cases of heart trouble, stomach disorder, asthma, headache and excessive fatigue are caused by claustrophobia and similar fears.

The Case of the Frightened Boss

CLAUSTROPHOBIA is so closely tied up with heart disease that a prominent Los Angeles heart specialist declared, “The fear of closed places and being shut in is one of the main neurotic symptoms in my chronic heart patients.” Psychologists have found that victims of severe claustrophobia almost always believe that they have a heart disorder. Severe cases are afraid they will die at any moment.

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much reason why claustrophobia victims should have symptoms of heart trouble. Yet there is a logical connection. When a person with this kind of fear is confined in a small place, he becomes panicky and his heart begins to pound. After a time, this same symptom is carried over to the other panic situations most of us experience in our daily living.

Stomach complaints are also common among victims of claustrophobia. Along with a pounding heart, acute claustrophobic panic involves a disturbance of the nerves supplying the stomach and the intestines. The digestion becomes upset. Intestinal cramps, diarrhea and nausea make up a “stomach” reaction pattern. Once the pattern is established, it becomes a characteristic reaction to difficult day-to-day conflicts.

The executive of a large New York corporation, with offices on the 80th floor of a skyscraper, suffered with stomach disturbances for more than 10 years. He visited specialists in every large medical centre in America. No one was able to find out his trouble. Finally, he told his story to a psychiatrist he happened to meet at a dinner party given at a hotel roof garden.

At the dinner’s end, while they were waiting for the elevator, the businessman exclaimed, “If we weren’t on the 20th floor I would walk down. Elevators make me nervous.” Going down in the elevator, the psychiatrist noticed his friend become tense and pale and grit his teeth. At that moment the psychiatrist knew what was causing the stomach disorder. He explained to the executive how the daily trips to the 80th floor of the office building were so upsetting to his nervous system that his stomach was upset. He advised the executive to move his offices to the ground-floor level. The executive did so and the stomach trouble disappeared.

Another physical disorder closely associated with claustrophobia is asthma. As in the case of heart and stomach symptoms, breathing difficulties are first developed in connection with claustrophobic panic. Then they are extended to other fearprovoking situations. In many cases, the breathing disorder becomes so aggravated that the victim shows all the typical signs of chronic asthma.

Some psychologists believe that these breathing difficulties are a part of a “phantasy of suffocation” an expression of a long-forgotten fear of losing life by losing breath. “The panic,” explained Dr. Nandor Fodor, a prominent London psychiatrist, “is a re-enactment of the panic with which we drew our first lungful of air after being born into this world.”

Another common symptom of claustrophobia is excessive fatigue which can be traced back to the sufferer’s dream life. The victims’ dreams are packed with incredible horrors. Nightmares of suffocation and being

Continued on page 38

Continued from pape 16

unable to breathe are common. The victim is tired and exhausted in the morning. “The attack of claustrophobia itself,” explained Dr. Fodor, “is equivalent to a nightmare in the waking state.”

Some of the most serious cases of claustrophobia were observed during the war. A sergeant who was decorated for bravery in the face of enemy fire was reduced to a state of terror at the thought of being confined in a foxhole or a dugout. He preferred to lie fiat on the ground out in the open. “I would rather die,” he declared, “than be cooped up in a hole in the ground.”

Victims of claustrophobia aren’t likely to commit acts that would land them in jail. If they are put in the cells, they usually end up in the prison hospital. Some prisoners become so terrified that they nearly lose their minds. Others develop symptoms of heart trouble and stomach disorder. And it’s no coincidence that the number of cases of asthma in prison is much higher than any place else.

One of the most difficult things for the claustrophobia victim is to travel. Airplanes, railroad cars, buses and private automobiles all involve small, closed spaces. A man in New York, who travels to work on the elevated, must get out at five or six stations on his way to and from town. This same man can drive his automobile without any trouble. “It’s a matter of control,” he explained. “When I am controlling the car, I feel secure. But when someone else is controlling a vehicle, 1 can’t stand it more than five or 10 minutes at a time.”

What makes people afraid of being closely confined? The most commonly given explanation is that the phobia dates from some intense fear-producing experience which usually occurs during childhood. Though forgotten, the fear remains active in the victim’s unconscious mind. Such a fear is said to be “repressed.”

Dr. W. H. Rivers, the prominent British psychiatrist, told of a young physician who was terrified whenever he was confined in a narrow space. During the war he was unable to sleep in a dugout and was forced to sleep in the open. His condition became so bad that he was sent to a base hospital.

Psychiatrists finally solved the problem. As a small boy the physician had taken some old papers to the house of a rag-and-paper merchant. The child had to go through a long, dark passageway. When he came out, he found that the door to the street was locked. He turned around and found that there was a dog growling at the other end of the passage. The child was terrified. This early state of terror had been hidden in the physician’s mind for nearly 25 years. As soon as (he memory for the incident was recovered, the phobia disappeared.

Don’t Coop Up a Child

Sometimes claustrophobia begins with an intense emotional shock during later life. The wife of a British naval officer stationed in the West Indies opened the door of a cupboard and found a poisonous snake coiled on the floor. She screamed and fainted. Her husband killed the snake but his wife became a victim of claustrophobia.

Many cases began during the recent war. “We have tens of thousands of cases of mild and serious claustrophobia,” declared Dr. Fodor, “dating from experiences in foxholes.”

Some psychologists stress the importance of guilt in the development of

claustrophobia. The circumstances of early fear experiences are frequently such as to provoke a sense of shame. As a result, the individual does not tell about the incident. Sometimes the incident is connected with sexuality and sometimes it is connected with punishment.

“Parents are frequently responsible for the development of claustrophobic fears in their children,” declares Dr. Donald Gregg, former president of the Massachusetts Society for Mental Hygiene. “The worst thing that a parent or a teacher can do is to thrust a young child into a closet or a tiny room for disciplinary purposes.”

Glaustrophohia is also related to the fear of being buried—and especially of being buried alive. This fear is frequently reflected in the fear of small, closed spaces. Although the claustrophobia victim doesn’t know it, such spaces are symbolic of the grave and being buried.

Some psychologists and psychiatrists believe that there are even more fundamental reasons for the development of claustrophobia. Dr. Ernest Jones, one of England’s outstanding psychiatrists, believes that claustrophobia is related to dreams and phantasies concerning one’s birth. According to this theory, the fear of entering an enclosed space has among its ideas the one that the enclosure is the mother’s body. It is really the buried memory of birth that is behind the fear. “In almost every case that has come to my attention,” declared Dr. Fodor, “the shock of birth was the fundamental event to which the claustrophobia could be traced.” Most psychologists wouldn’t agree with such an involved explanation.

Digging Up the Past

Whatever the reason for the claustrophobia, the treatment of the condition follows certain fairly well-established lines. The main thing is to dig up the forgotten memories which are responsible for the fear. The two most frequently used methods are psychoanalysis and drug hypnosis.

Psychoanalysis is a method in which the patient tells more and more of his life story until the critical incidents related to the phobia are finally revealed. The patient tells about his ideas, his feelings, his emotions, his hopes and his fears. It may take several months—or several years— before the problem can be solved.

John Randolph was a power in the business world. But when Mr. Randolph found himself in a small room, he was reduced to a mass of fears and tensions. He visited the psychiatrist four times a week for nearly 15 months before the story of his life revealed the long-forgotten incident that was at the bottom of the claustrophobia. He finally remembered that, when he was a child, he was locked in the cellar of a vacant building for six or seven hours before his parents came to his rescue. When the incident had been recalled, Mr. Randolph’s phobia disappeared.

Psychoanalysis is long and expensive. A later technique, drug hypnosis, manages to get at the repressed material in a fraction of the time. The patient is given a drug to make him drowsy, while the psychiatrist talks to him about his early experiences. The patient, highly suggestible in this state, is more than willing to talk. What’s more, he is conscious of experiences that are completely forgotten during his waking life. It is often possible to dig up the repressed memories after four or five sessions.

Boh Evans, a successful real-estate broker, was unable to travel on buses, in elevators, on subways, through

tunnels, or over bridges. He had to live in a ground-floor apartment, could move only in his own car. He couldn’t sleep in a bed. “It gives me a feeling uf being tied down and closed in,’’ he explained. He slept instead on the floor or in a chair.

Under drug hypnosis, Bob told how, as a small boy, he had crawled into a culvert and become stuck. The youngster called for help, but his father didn’t hear him for several hours. The psychiatrist explained to him that when he was afraid in a tunnel or in bed, he was really a terror-stricken boy stuck in a culvert. Bob’s fears became less intense and less frequent and after a few months be was completely free of his claustrophobia.

Most of the people with claustrophobia manage to get along fairly well. It may be only mildly disturbing. If

you take the trouble to understand your fear, you can usually do something about it yourself.

It isn’t enough to know that your fear of closed spaces is ridiculous and senseless. Nor can you reason it away. You must dig out the roots of the trouble.

If you attempt to do it yourself, search into your early years. Talk over your childhood with someone who knew you. Write out the story of your early life. Do anything that will help you recall your repressed and forgotten experiences. When the right memory comes along, you will know it immediately. You will be able to recognize that here, at last, is the source of the difficulty. Once the troublesome memory has been revived, you will have won the most important battle against your fear. ★