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About Claustrophobia

By Captain Miki Katz ,

People who are afraid of flying are often mistakenly regarded as a homogenous group in which all individuals suffer the same fears. Most people who fear flying are usually worried about various matters related to flight-safety.

However, a significant group of fearful fliers suffer from claustrophobia – a fear of enclosed spaces.
Claustrophobia is a fear of going into places it might be difficult, or impossible to leave when one wants and includes fear of being in a place that might have a shortage of air.

These feelings may be experienced in a wide variety of places – an elevator, a theater, a shopping center, an underground train, taxis or car, a train or bus, not to mention various facilities in amusement parks and other enclosed places.

Fear of flying in this context derives from the claustrophobic person’s apprehension that the airplane is a closed-in space – and there is no way of getting out of it. This makes claustrophobic feelings in a plane more severe than in most other enclosed places. While one can step out of a shopping mall or a theater, and stop the bus and get off, this cannot be done on a plane. From the moment the doors are closed one has no control over the situation, the pilots are isolated from the passenger cabin and it is not possible to stop and get off.

It is estimate that 35% of those who are afraid of flying and avoid flying are claustrophobics. Another word, their main concern is the fact that the aircraft is closed. This is why many of the Relaxed Flight seminar participants suffer from claustrophobia.

If the sufferer also gets a feeling that the air might run out it is easy to understand why the fear of enclosed spaces is more intense on a fight than anywhere else. Claustrophobics therefore avoid flying as much as possible. Some tell me they are willing to take very short flights – say up to an hour long – to shorten nightmare, but are not prepared to even consider a long flight.

After years of dealing with fear of flying and helping so many, I can say that there is a great difference between those who are afraid of flying because of claustrophobia, and those who fear it for safety reasons. Anyone can easily recognize if, and to what extent, he or she suffers in
enclosed places. If you avoid elevators, or look for exit signs and stroll mainly near the exits a shopping mall, or find it important for you to sit on the theater aisle rather than in a middle-row seat in the theater, you are probably suffering from claustrophobia.

Up to the time of flight, differences in behavior among individuals afraid of flying are not great – for example, they may all feel an increasing sense of pressure the closer the flight gets. But the differences during the flight become most significant.

Here are a few examples.
People who are afraid of flying for safety reasons become more fearful the longer the flight lasts. They constantly look at their watches and wish the flight would end; they cannot eat or get up, they are worried by every glance of the 1 of 4 about claustrophobia cabin crew, they are on the verge of a panic attack every time the plane enters turbulence and shakes, they yearn for explanations from the cockpit and there is no question of them watching a movie or napping. As the end of the flight nears, their dread begins to wane and when the descent starts they may even smile with relief. They feel that if the flight is almost over and nothing has happened, there is a good chance it may end safely. The landing is accompanied by a feeling of victory – the statistics were wrong, apparently,
and nothing happened.

However, with claustrophobics things happen differently. They are very careful about their seating arrangement and will always pick an isle seat, preferably near the door. Claustrophobics have two main crisis points on the flight – one the beginning and one at the end. Already in the terminal they are wondering “will I come home again or not.” At the crucial moment of boarding the plane the question “am I staying here or not?” torments them. The captain’s instruction to the crew to close the doors is their moment of truth, for it is their last chance to escape from the plane.

Many claustrophobics cannot stand the pressure and may decide to leave the airport, regardless of the trip’s importance – be it a honeymoon or a family reunion or a major business trip. Others who are braver may make it to the departure gate before turning back.

I always explain to air crews on my courses that a passenger who wants to get off the plane just before the doors close is probably suffering from claustrophobia. But what is interesting is that once claustrophobics decide to remain on the plane, they adjust to their new environment quite quickly. They adjust to the reality of being on a flight and from a certain point on they are normal passengers who walk around, eat, maybe even watch a movie or doze. Like many who fear flying however, they will avoid going into the toilet during flight – the toilet booth is tiny and cramped and cannot be left unlocked. Their trick is to avoid drinking on flight so to reduce the need to use the toilet. During the flight claustrophobics have faith in the crew; they have no safety related anxieties and are usually not bothered by turbulence.

But all is not well for long. As end of the flight nears and the “normal” fearful fliers start smiling with relief, the claustrophobic will start fretting about how to “get out of here as fast as possible” after landing. Claustrophobics have a difficult time after the plane lands and starts to taxi slowly to the terminal. The fear of closed-in places starts to mount again and they become more anxious to get off the plane immediately. Their nightmare is that the plane might be delayed in getting to the terminal or that there will be a long wait for the doors to open. The moment the plane stops and all the passengers rise from their seats and fill the isles can even trigger a panic attack.

I have describe the differences between fearful fliers in a general way, but of course each person can react individually and differently to the various flight situations.

I mentioned that as part of my specialization in fear of flying, I give courses on the subject to air crews. Among other things, I train them to recognize and distinguish passengers suffering from claustrophobia from those who are afraid of flying for safety reasons, and I explain how critical the seating arrangement is to these people. I emphasize the importance of helping them get off the plane first, even if they are not sitting in the front seats.

Coping with claustrophobia - The main question of course is what can be done to alleviate the condition.

With my vast experience with claustrophobic travelers I found out that there are several tools that can help you fly with claustrophobia. For example, the main concern of 95% of those who have never flown before and attended the seminar was the fact that the aircraft is closed. In fact, some of the testimonials you read in this web site belongs to some of them.

I wish you more pleasant flights,
Captain Miki Katz

One of the topics of the Relaxed Flight seminar is flying on closed environment, If you suffer in closed spaces, than the seminar provides you with effective tools to cope with the claustrophobic feeling when flying.
Claustrophobia is a real problem but the seminar helped already many people like you so there is no reason why it should not help you too.

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