Claustrophobia: Extreme or irrational fear of confined places.
Cleithrophobia: The fear of being enclosed
I never identified as claustrophobic (or cleithrophic) before. I don’t know what’s happened to me the past year or so, but while traveling, I’ve come upon some instances where I’ve felt panic when I feel like I’m trapped in a situation or trapped in a place.
Just a few days ago, my husband and I, who are traveling around Thailand, took a 4-hour bus ride to a new town. A few days earlier, we’d been on a wonderful, huge, comfortable bus with awesome air conditioning. The trip was fine. So we assumed this trip would be the same.
Surprise! We were wrong. This new trip was in a minivan, packed to capacity, with the air conditioning a tiny trickle of air — just enough that you weren’t melting. It was extremely HOT and uncomfortable.
After the first 10 minutes on this bus, I looked around and thought, “Well, this is where I’m going to be for the next four hours.” And I felt a little panic start to rise inside me. There was no way out. (Well, I guess technically I could tell the driver to STOP and let me out, but I wasn’t going to do that.) But realistically, I had decided to take this bus ride and I had to do it. I looked at the door and thought about what would happen if I had a panic attack.
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What gets to me the most is heat and the lack of air movement. I really have issues with air movement. When I’m in a stuffy, warm room, with no air movement, I feel like I can’t breathe. Having a fan is essential to me when I’m ill, dizzy, or overheated.
This trapped feeling happened to me twice on overnight train rides, too. On both occasions, the train windows were closed and there was no air circulation. As I lay on my hard sleeper bed on the train, with the bunk above me just inches from my face, the air felt SO CLOSE that I again felt like I couldn’t breathe. The inklings of panic started to grow. I had to get up and walk around the silent train car while everyone else was asleep.
On one night-train ride, I did something my husband and I still laugh about. It was so hot and stuffy and the air was so close that I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and that time was standing still. I simply could not bear it. I had to do SOMETHING. I pulled the sheet off my bed and took it into the (gross) train bathroom, and I used the sink to wet the sheet, all while everyone else on the train was asleep. That way, when I went back to my bunk, at least I could use the wet sheet to cool myself down and move it around. (We joke that the next day, the people who tidied up the train would be pretty grossed out by my damp sheet.)
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To a “normal” person, I bet the wet-sheet thing sounds pretty strange. But I had to do something. That’s all I could think about. I have to do something or I’m losing my mind. I think by wetting the sheet, I gave myself the ability to change my environment in a small way. I could move the sheet around and feel the cool parts of it throughout the night. This helped me feel like the walls weren’t closing in on me, and that the air wasn’t so still because there was some coolness. I had something to distract me from the utter stillness.
I guess. I don’t know.
The feeling of being trapped or like you can’t breathe and time is standing still is COMPLETELY TERRIFYING. You feel like you just cannot bear it. So, I have gained empathy for people who are claustrophobic.
Is there anyone else out there who feels the same way? Leave a comment below.
Note: This post has gotten a lot of attention since I first wrote it. If you have life-affecting issues with confined spaces, please consider speaking to a therapist who can help you work through it. Secondly, if you have physical difficulty breathing in certain situations, you should discuss this with a doctor.