Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Treating Claustrophobia

Claustrophobia is an exagerated fear of closed-in spaces,being in crowds or even in large spaces. We have a natural defence mechanism which seeks to prevent us being crushed, buried, suffocated to the point that we cannot breathe. The fear can lead to fainting and panic attacks. Just being in a crowd can cause panic.

Lifts/elevators are a common problem. A person will feel trapped and worry about every sound or jolt. Even the alternative stairs can feel repressive.

Any phobia leads to the perceived problem being exagerated, that the worst is about to happen. A desire for our own space, air and unfettered movement is normal but lack can cause panic. Classic fight or flight responses include rapid breathing, increased heart rate and shaking.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is a popular form of treatment for any phobia but its many techniques involves heading the fear head-on and submitting oneself to the extremes of the fear. This seems like torture.

I watched a programme(1) with American psychologist Dr Michael Telch treating a 20 year old female claustrophobic. The girl said that she had been told that CBT is 100% effective but she doubted how being placed in extreme situations of fear would help. In the second session the girl was placed in an enclosed chamber or box to recreate the idea of a coffin and told that she had to lie there for a couple of minutes without screaming or attempting to escape. She started with a fear level and fear of danger of 85% and after two minutes, this lowered to 75% as her breathing started to slow. The next step was a private guided walk down into a cave, somewhere she had never been before but just a normal tourist walk, no attempt at pot-holing or climbing between cave crevices. Finally, we saw here walking along a river where previously she had fainted due to the crowd. She felt comfortable and enjoyed the walk. The therapist considered her relieved of her phobia.

Personally, I fail to see how exiting from a locked coffin with a high 75% fear level, walking around a large cave and then freely by a river means that the phobia has been eradicated. As someone who has suffered from the claustrophobic effect of being strapped into a MRI scanner, the idea of the closed box was unbearable.

Hypnosis is also very effective at treating claustrophobia but in a gentle, almost detached way. The unconscious mind cannot distinguish between real and imagined and under the deep relaxation experienced in hypnosis, the person seeking help is exposed to fearful situations but without provoking fear. The message is then rewritten direct in the subconscious so that the fear is released, calmly and permanently.

The basis of much hypnosis work is ego-strengthening, ie making the person feel more confident, more "comfortable in their skin" and part of this process is identifying a time when the person felt really good, positive, on top of the world and fully in control. The therapist then locks in that feeling, often with an NLP technique so that the person can recreate that feeling whenever necessary.

The hypnotherapist will then desensitize the person's fear by replacing it with positive emotions. The person may never love what has caused a phobia but the desired outcome is that the person will regain control over the fear and experience a "normal" reaction to the source of fear.

(1) "Phobia" produced by Pangolin Pictures for National Geographic Channel, 2002

Click here for a Hypnosis MP3 Download "Overcoming Claustrophobia"

Antonia Stuart-James is an English Hypnotherapist in Belgium helping people to make positive change.

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