How to deal with claustrophobia while you’re self-isolating

Published September 8, 2020, 6:20 PM

by Paola Navarette

Nobody likes to feel trapped, but for claustrophobes, it involves going down a much scarier wormhole. But there are ways to cope


As quarantine drags on, the ever-present drumbeat of fear is getting harder to ignore. Fear changes a person, at least in the short term. Experts reassure us that strange dreams, scattershot memories, and bodily discomfort are all normal responses to a highly unusual situation. 

But that doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable or unsettling for those who have anxiety disorders like claustrophobia. Isolation can even unravel many serious symptoms, making simple tasks such as sleeping, commuting, or taking a lift difficult.

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While we can’t drive fear off with a big stick, we can learn ways to calm ourselves down and find a little peace of mind. Below are some tips that can help you ease the tension in your mind and feel less constrained in your own home.

Don’t skip the self-care

Everything that goes under the umbrella of “self-care” is essential right now, says Sydney Fontanares, a psychologist who specializes in treating chronic mental illnesses. 

“Action is powerful, even if we start with just one thing,” she reminds us, “so slow down, engage in healthy practices, and try to sustain regular routines that bring comfort and stability.”

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Neglecting activities like sleeping or eating for a period of time, Fontanares says, can significantly affect our mental health and make us more susceptible to claustrophobia and other mental health issues. So don’t forget to check in with yourself regularly, and ask whether you are meeting most of your basic needs. 

Label the feeling to steer your experience

Much like a baby’s cry, fear lets you know there is an issue that needs addressing. Just as you try to figure out why the baby is in distress and resolve it, you must work to determine what your fear is trying to tell you.

Naming your fear—and then renaming it—allows you to process its message rather than just react to its discomfort. 

“Identify the fear when you are experiencing it, and then challenge it by saying ‘I am safe.’ Remind yourself that what you’re feeling is temporary and it will pass,” says Fontanares. “Try to think of a storm that creates waves in an ocean, eventually the storm will pass and the ocean will calm down. Once you do this and start executing solutions, you’ll notice the fear begins to dissipate.”

Connect, connect, connect

Don’t be afraid to ask for emotional support—now is the time to turn toward each other. 

“Stay in communication with family, friends, and neighbors to avoid the triggers of the phobia,” says psychologist and nurse Michael Jimenez. “Claustrophobia can be quite isolating, so it is important to be able to talk to someone if you are struggling or at least express how you are feeling.”

Use the phone, text, or email—all means possible—to stay connected to anyone who matters to you, especially those who induce a sense of calm rather than chaos. People need to hear your voice, too, and vice versa.

You can also bolster positive feelings by doing something good—for the essential workers in your community or for yourself. 

“This moment calls on us to not only care for others but to also be gentle with ourselves. Try to practice gratitude—identify three things that you are thankful for in the morning and at bedtime,” says Jimenez, who is currently a trainer for WHO’s mental health GAP action program at the Department of Health. “Giving back to the community and sharing your experiences with other people can also help decrease the risk of depression.” 

Work on your breathing, because anxiety is real

Jimenez urges those experiencing a panic attack to practice full, consistent breathing to combat hyperventilation. He says it helps to “reassure yourself that you’re safe and the debilitating panic will go away.”

The psychologist recommends a technique called square breathing. Find a comfortable place to sit, and a posture that is both alert and relaxed at the same time. Take a deep breath, expanding your belly. Pause for four seconds. Slowly breathe out to the count of four, and then hold your breath for the same pace before repeating the process.

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“It’s important that we take a few moments and pause and just sort of relax ourselves and our nervous system,” says Jimenez. “Do mindfulness practices as often as you can so that the body will learn how to calm the mind and regulate emotions.” 

Therapy, yoga, meditation, and religious practices are good starting points, but he suggests also considering the healing impacts of making art and journaling. If panic attacks are interfering with your daily functioning, it’s worth considering seeking treatment from a professional.