Lying underneath my bed is like being in a coffin.
There’s only three inches of space between the tip of my nose and the underside of the mattress. To get under there, I have to slide my way in.
It’s not comfortable, but I’m planning on spending a lot more time under there, working my way up to staying for an entire night.
Why on earth would I do something like this?
No, it’s not research for my latest novel.
It’s to cure something that has plagued me for as long as I can remember–claustrophobia.
Mine is a most unpredictable phobia. It’s not brought on by crowds, or even caves. But every now and then it strikes, usually when I’m feeling trapped.
And when it hits, it hits hard.
I feel like I’m dying. My chest gets tight, I can’t breathe, and I start to panic. It’s one of the worst feelings I have ever experienced, and it doesn’t matter how much I try to rationalize it or calm myself–during an attack, the only way to survive has been to get out of the situation.
Most people who have phobias handle them the way I do. We feel that horrible panic, so we get out of the situation that is causing the panic. Some of us will even avoid situations that we suspect will trigger our phobias.
It’s a natural reaction–who would willingly make himself feel horrible? But, unfortunately, it’s the worst thing you can do, and it actually gives the phobia even more power.
As the good Dr. Jeff Harvey explained to me, when you experience a panic attack of this kind, your brain is sending messages to your autonomic nervous system. This system has two subsystems: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. Both jump into action at the same time, but the parasympathetic is slower to take effect.
The sympathetic nervous system is what prepares us for fight or flight, while the parasympathetic returns our bodies to their “normal” setting. It takes a few minutes, and when you’re experiencing a panic attack, it can feel like forever, but if someone with a phobia stays in the situation that is freaking them out, their symptoms will eventually subside.
One of the best–and most comforting–things Dr. Harvey told me is, “You may feel like you’re dying, but you’re not going to die.” Sounds simple, but if you’ve ever experienced this kind of terror, you know that you really do believe that you’re going to die from it.
By avoiding the situations that heighten our fears, we’re telling our brains that the only way to feel better is to escape. But we’d also feel better if we just waited it out until our parasympathetic nervous system had time to do its thing.
The more we avoid the situations that provoke our phobias, the more we strengthen our conviction that running away is the only cure.
Hence my new habit of hanging out under my bed.
When I first tried to get underneath, I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it. But I did. So far, I’m up to ten minutes in near darkness.
Getting over my claustrophobia will not only help with many of the things I hope to experience when I move to an island–it will also help me enjoy my upcoming trip to China, which involves spending four nights on crowded sleeper trains. If I can successfully spend a night under my bed, sleeping on a Chinese train will be a snap.
Have you ever experienced a phobia? If so, have you ever tried this kind of exposure therapy? Did it help? Has a phobia ever kept you from doing something?