Missing Titanic sub triggering feelings of claustrophobia
As rescuers continue to search the ocean for a missing Titan submersible vessel, people following the news are responding with a common sentiment: feelings of claustrophobia.
“Just watching this story about the lost submersible under the sea, is giving me claustrophobia and palpitations,” tweeted Ana Navarro-Cárdenas, a political commentator on CNN.
The vessel named Titan is 22 feet long and can travel about 2.4 miles below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, holding a five-person crew in a cabin with “about as much room as a minivan.”
“Good lord, I couldn’t imagine willingly entering that thing,” one person wrote on Reddit in response to the news. “It’s like some of my worst nightmares combined into one hyperventilating package.”
But is the anxiety we’re feeling really a sign of claustrophobia? Would most people struggle in such a small space? The Post asked the experts.
Are we all experiencing collective claustrophobia?
It may seem that way, but claustrophobia is an irrational fear of enclosed spaces, and can trigger feelings of panic, trouble breathing, chills and tightness in the chest, among other things. In the case of the missing submersible, fear for the stranded vessel is not irrational.
If you haven’t had claustrophobia before, the feelings of anxiety and queasiness you’re experiencing when you read news accounts or see images of the missing vessel and passengers are probably induced by empathy.
Claustrophobia has been estimated to range from about 2 to 12.5 percent of the population and most sufferers are female.
What’s the difference between normal fear and claustrophobia?
Discomfort around or fear of enclosed spaces is “more or less normal,” said Nassir Ghaemi, a psychiatrist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. There’s probably a biological reason humans are scared of heights, bugs or enclosed spaces.
“It’s normal to be anxious about many things,” Ghaemi said. “These are all normal physiological reactions that human beings have evolved over millennia.”
But, “for some people, it gets to the point where they’re not able to function well,” Ghaemi said. The fear becomes a “phobia” when someone’s concern of enclosed spaces doesn’t match the actual risk presented by the situation. A person’s concern starts to affect their daily life at home, work or school.
“The fear gets in the way such that people can’t do the things that they want to do,” said Joe Bienvenu, professor of psychiatry and anxiety disorders at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “It’s an irrational fear that interferes with a person’s life.”
And past traumatic experiences where people have felt trapped, without a sense of control or a way to escape, can lead someone to feel claustrophobic, said Adam Borland, a clinical psychologist at Cleveland Clinic.
“There’s a fear of the lack of control,” Borland said. “That I am in this situation and I cannot remove myself.”
Ghaemi said there is some research suggesting the phobia is a “physiological reflex,” or what’s called “a suffocation alarm,” in someone who believes there’s a higher level of carbon dioxide — or a lack of oxygen — while in close quarters with others.
“They get the physiological signal that there’s not enough oxygen,” Ghaemi said. “They feel like they’re going to suffocate. That’s when the panic attack happens. Those are the people who get claustrophobia.”
People who are claustrophobic will often go out of their way to avoid confined spaces. But, staying away from certain situations, like taking the elevator or riding the subway, can actually reinforce the phobia, Bienvenu said.