Writing Wellness: “Don’t Hem Me In”

Note: This is part of a series of guest articles generously shared with RCA called Writing Wellness. The topics will vary, but we hope that each will provide insight and interest, shedding light on topics old and new. 

Don’t Hem Me In

By Porter B McPhearson

rockland-hypnosis-hypnotherapy-ClaustrophobiaFor as long as I can remember I have had an arm’s length bubble. If anyone, but the closest family or friends, crosses that invisible line, I get very uncomfortable. During my seminary days we had a visiting professor who had no such compunction. One day on break from class he engaged me in conversation. When he crossed into my bubble, I retreated a bit and then he advanced. This little dance went on for several minutes before he moved on to invade someone else’s space. One of my other professors, observing this whole situation play out, afterwards empathized with me and told me he believed I could have retreated all the way across campus and he would have continued to advance. I laugh at the absurd image now, but at the time I felt infringed upon.

With my depression, I find that my bubble only gets bigger and when it is breached I get claustrophobic. It is widely accepted that a mood disorder and an anxiety disorder, in which the phobias belong, often co-exist. It is believed that the anxiety disorder comes first and depression follows, exaggerating the effects of the anxiety, but depression can also trigger anxiety. In more than one study it was found that nearly fifty percent of people with an anxiety disorder will develop a major depressive disorder. Among the class of anxiety disorders panic attacks, social phobia, and the other specific phobias are mentioned the most and often are or become comorbid disorders. One researcher went so far as to say the two are “highly comorbid.” An explanation for the two associated disorders remains elusive.

Although the two disorders are distinct and each has its own symptoms, they do share some commonalities: nervousness and worry, irritability and anger, restlessness and insomnia, difficulty with concentration, and feeling tired and cranky. The feeling that our lives are out of our control also contributes to both our anxiety and depression.

Claustrophobia appears to be one of the phobias that often co-occurs with depression. It includes a fear of being enclosed with no means of escape, or a fear of restriction and/or suffocation. It is a sense of confinement that hems you in like the bars of a prison. Situations that might lend themselves to these feelings are avoided or endured with great stress. We might go to great lengths to steer clear of such entrapments or smothering feelings, and thus it interferes with our otherwise normal routine, drains away our time, exhausts our energy supply, and robs us of our emotional reserves. Oh, more than likely the person with claustrophobia knows that their thoughts are irrational, but still they persist and the electric sensations traveling through our bodies overrule our logical mind.

You have to look no farther than an internet chat room to discover a treasure trove of empirical evidence. One person wrote he just has to get outside sometimes no matter the weather. Another agreed saying that no one could imagine what kind of weather she endures to escape feeling enclosed. Several confessed issues with tight spaces. You have no doubt read or heard about people taking the stairs even in high rises to avoid riding in an elevator. Many wrote of the fear of being engulfed by a crowd or trapped in a line.

Although there have been times when I have had to, I do not like the “in a coffin” feeling I get when I enter the crawlspace under a house. This past summer I dropped a tool into our crawlspace. I recruited my nine-year-old grandson and our 10-year-old neighbor to retrieve my screwdriver. There I was on the outside directing the boys to the right spot, but I could not get under there with them. As I wrote in last week’s blog, I also have an issue with crowds and lines. It is not the organized crowd, like in a church sanctuary, that bothers me as much as the unorganized crowd you find in a store the weekend before Christmas. I feel trapped and without control over who gets near or touches me. My bubble does not extend all the way around my body unless I am being tussled by a crowd. I can have a person shoulder to shoulder with me on one side (both sides might be a bit much), close behind, or in front of me, but put someone closer than arms length face to face with me and I start feeling like I cannot breathe.

There are at least three things that can help us cope with our claustrophobic sensations.

  • We have to CHALLENGE OUR THOUGHTS: We need to admit the irrationality of our fears – no, the ceiling will not fall on us, the walls will not move to squeeze us in, and we will not be trapped in a box. Then REPLACE our unreasonable thoughts with reasonable ones. Currently, the reaction of our bodies in certain situations is controlling our minds. We must TAKE CHARGE and make progress toward our rational mind controlling our bodies.
  • We have to FACE OUR FEARS: Through slow and methodical practice we can overcome our fears. Several years ago there was a TV program that showed people overcoming their phobias. I remember one episode where a woman was trying to rid herself of her fear of heights. The “therapist” put her on a rock that was near ground level and asks her to jump into a pond. Next he increases the challenge by asking her to go 10 feet higher. This was repeated three more times. Although the principle depicted on the show is correct, the application of it was preposterous. She may have been able to go four inches higher, but, I guess, that would not have made for entertaining TV. No, facing our fears comes in baby steps and takes months or even years to overcome. It is a PROCESS, NOT AN EVENT.
  • We have to PRACTICE RELAXATION techniques. That includes deep breathing exercises, systematic muscle relaxation, and guided imagery. Next week, I plan to invite you into my personal relaxation methods. For me it really works. So, please check with me next Wednesday.

Peace be with you!

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