Why Am I Claustrophobic? What Can I Do About It?

Does it come from having been trapped? There is another cause to consider.

Posted Apr 10, 2017

Does claustrophobia come from having been trapped? It may seem so. But, in my view, claustrophobia results from by Mobilization System dependency. Consider this post (condensed) from on the SOAR Fear of Flying Message Board

Is anyone here claustrophobic? I can get in elevators, but I hate it and if it's over 10 floors. I can't do trains or any mode of transportation where I cannot exit when I need to. It's really a bummer.  I've been to therapy a few times for this and every time I am told I just have to walk through it - there is no cure.

There is a cure. To understand it, let's consider the levels at which response to threat can take place.

Level One. The Immobilization System: freeze when touched. This is a primitive defense system. For example, some beetles roll over on their backs, and stick their legs up to feign death. This works if the attacker loses interest.

Level Two. The Mobilization System: when the amygdala senses change, it releases stress hormones, causing an urge to run. This works if able to outrun an attacker. Drawback: false alarms; running away unnecessarily.

Level Three: Executive Function (EF). Larger brains add a capacity for thought while retaining the amygdala. When stress hormones cause an urge to run, EF pushes back against the urge and assesses the situation and to determine if running is necessary.

The problem at Level Three: the thinking brain produces an internal representation of the environment based on components of perception, memory, and imagination. The amygdala may react to what is presented in the internal representation.

EF has a sub-function, Reflective Function (RF), that looks inward. Well-developed RF determines to what degree the internal representation is based on perception, reference to memory, of creative imagination. Well-developed RF separates imagined threats from real threats. How well RF develops depends on childhood relationships with caregivers. Some caregivers do not foster RF development. Also, when a child's early life is problematic, the child may escape into imagination. If the imaginary world is preferred over the real world, the ability to separate imagination from perception may disappear with only a slight increase in stress hormones.

Level Four: Social Engagement System (see: www.stephenporges.com). Operation of RF is protected by a person whose presence activates the calming parasympathetic nervous system which overrides the effects of stress hormones .

Level Five; Internal Replica System. In place of a physically present calming person, internal replicas of a calming person activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

If a person has not been fortunate enough to build in calming replicas, Level Five doesn't hold. Regulation slides to Level Four where a physically present - rather than a psychologically present - person is needed. 

If no calming person is available, regulation slides to Level Three. EF cannot supply airtight answers to every imaginable threat. EF needs RF to identify and disqualify imagination-based threats. If RF is inadequate, imagination masquerades as real and EF cannot produce a sense of safety. The person slides down into Level Two, and the Mobilization System.

In other words, Mobilization System dependency develops if the more advanced systems at levels three, four, and five are insufficient. It also means if Mobilization is blocked, the person has no way to control anxiety. And thus claustrophobia.

Fortunately, the higher levels can be developed well enough to do the job and not leave a person dependent upon escape. This is done by deliberately providing the Level Five missing links, links between feelings of arousal and the present of a person who is both physically and emotionally safe to be with.