It is quitting time and you punch the button of the elevator. As the door swishes open, you notice there are just two other persons from the upper floors standing inside. You get in, the door closes and the descent begins. It is a long way down, as the elevator halts on every floor, absorbing many more people. Soon the small cubicle is cramped with home-bound people, all of them facing the door. You look around, and you suddenly realize that there is not much air around. Your heart begins pumping wildly. The hands become clammy, and you can actually feel beads of sweat forming at the tips of the fingers and drenching the armpits and socks. The head suddenly feels very strangely light - perhaps all the gray matter in the brain has ballooned because of so much blood flowing into it. You get a feeling of being trapped - oh my god, when will the ground floor arrive! A wave of panic washes over you. The person whose shoulder touches yours gives you a sideways glance - you sense that they have sensed what you are experiencing. Soon, the indicator shows floor zero, the door opens, and everybody tumbles out, you included, into the open air. Ah. That was one more claustrophobic attack that got over.
Now picture this. You are roaming the streets of an ancient flea bazaar, shopping for an antique piece the kind of which you had seen in the home of a friend you always want to be one up on. After inquiring at several shops, you finally see the light of recognition in the eyes of a vendor who beckons you to follow him inside the shop. You follow him. He opens a door that leads to an anteroom which is enclosed and without any windows, the only light coming from a zero-watt bulb, holding what appears to be a lot of antique inventory. But he does not pause here. There is another door at the other corner. He goes toward it and opens the door, half-turning around to signal you to follow. Your curiosity piqued with the anticipation of finally laying hands on what you were after for a long time, you cross through this door without any thought. Where you find yourself in is a room so small that only two people can stand close to each other. The room has an apology for a bulb that must have been installed there by the vendor's grandfather. You look around and suddenly realize this is an airtight room without any windows. What is worse, there is hardly an inch between you and the stack of decor pieces jutting out from the wall. The ceiling is so low that your head will touch it were you to raise your heels. And the door automatically shuts behind you. There is just no space to breathe. The vendor is pointing you to something in one corner, mumbling in a hush tone that one subconsciously acquires when in the presence of something sacred. But you are in no mood to listen. You are hyperventilating from suffocation already, and the only sounds you can hear are your gasps for breath and the loud thuds of the heart beating against the sternum and the temples. You want out! You don't want to be there for one more moment. Absolutely frantic now, you whirl around, push the door open, rush wildly out into the middle room, startling a mouse on the floor, and only when you are absolutely, totally out of the shop, on the road, in the open, the gentle breeze taking mercy by cooling the perspiration from your face and the sweat-soaked clothes, that you come back to your senses. Sounds familiar, this?
Claustrophobia is easily a psychological disorder that is the most overlooked and most under-treated. The reason is that the sufferer learns how to avoid the onset of this condition by creating the defense mechanism of avoidance of such situations in the first place. To the claustrophobic, not only do enclosed places create a feeling of entrapment, but also they lead to a feeling of restricted movement, with the possibility of escape shrinking by the second. If you have seen a wild animal that has always spent a lifetime roaming the free space of a jungle, entrapped for the first time in the confined space set by a hunter, you will empathize with the condition of the claustrophobic; that is if you are not one yourself. Indeed, if neurosis has to be induced in animals in a lab setting for the purpose of experimentation or clinical trials, one technique is to subject them to confined conditions. The threat of suffocation, the fear that there may not be enough air left in the air around us to breathe, is a primeval fear that we carry from the womb, and handed down the ages as heritage. In the case of claustrophobics, this fear gets exaggerated. Is it some bad childhood experience playing itself out again and again and in a more sinister manner? Or is it the mechanism of survival against odds becoming over-protective? The etiopathology is, as they say, a mystery inside the proverbial enigma.
The treatment of claustrophobia is no mystery however: it is possible to treat a claustrophobic through cognitive therapy techniques. One's disassociation of one's feelings with the perceived threat of both suffocation and movement-restriction can be achieved through a clutch of techniques such as systematic desensitization coupled with counter-conditioning, and even regression hypnosis and neuro-linguistic programming. These do not involve any pharmacological intervention whatsoever.
If you are a claustrophobic yourself, or know somebody who is, then you might consider getting in touch with a behavioral therapist with whom sittings can be arranged. A few sessions is usually what it takes to get rid of the fear, and begin to live life with one item less in one's baggage.
[Claustrophobia is not the only fear that we may be bringing with us from childhood days. While the fear may have been first triggered due to exceptional circumstances beyond anybody's control, there are other fears that are instilled in us quite deliberately and consciously by parents and other elders with all well-meaning intentions. "Don't do such-and-such, else so-and-so will befall you or happen to you!" Do you remember these stern admonitions and warnings? Think and try to recall them. They must be there in some recess of your memory somewhere. Head bowed, we carry these admonitions and warnings and the associated consequences for the rest of our life, little realizing how they are damaging our prospects for happiness and prosperity. Here is an article that should help you introspect the path you have taken so far, and how it may have been shaped by the learning inculcated in you by people you had once looked up to, and perhaps still continue to do so: "Pinocchio, Everything's Fine With Your Nose". Here's wishing you all the best in your quest for discovering an admonition or two that can now be discarded.]