The author's face framed by wallsAimee Browes / BBC Three

Living with claustrophobia: ‘I’m too afraid to lock my bathroom door’

One sufferer shares the everyday realities of living with this debilitating phobia

Aimee Browes

I was around 10 when I was first diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder and put on medication. It was also at this age that I remember feeling claustrophobic for the first time - though I wouldn't learn to officially call it that until much later.

I was playing hide and seek at a family member's house and squeezed myself into a built-in wall cupboard. But when I tried to get out, the door wouldn't open from the inside. I felt so hot and started screaming and crying. There were people outside trying to help me open the door, but I honestly felt like I was going to die in there. I must have only been locked in the cupboard for about two minutes, but it felt like hours.

A couple of years after that, I was eating lunch with my friends in a classroom at school with a big wooden door. One of our group shut the door and then, because it was a bit stiff, we just couldn't get it open. 

My friends found it funny, but I was screaming, crying, and started to have a panic attack. Finally, a teacher heard us and was able to push the door open. After that, I felt the need to check doors and locks wherever I went.

To this day, claustrophobia affects my life on a daily basis.

I can’t go into toilets without a gap at the bottom or top big enough for me to escape through if required. Coffee shop toilets where there’s just one single, closed-off room make me feel physically sick. In hotels, I have to just hope that someone won’t come in because I won’t double-lock the door from the inside. It’s the small things that other people can do that I can’t – I even struggle getting into taxis or other people’s cars if I know the doors automatically lock or if I hear the lock click.

I’ve been in and out of retail jobs since I was 16, and gave it up last year to become self-employed. Working in a shop proved tough because I wasn't able to go into any of the lifts or changing rooms. 

It was a horrible experience. Straightforward things like going into a cupboard to get a clothing rack would freak me out completely. I’d have to put my foot into the door while I reached for something to block it so it wouldn't shut. Or I’d have to ask another member of staff to do the task for me.

An image of a liftistock / BBC Three

Lifts are my worst trigger. Even looking at one makes me feel panicked and I can’t touch the doors, never mind get in. I don’t think anyone likes closed spaces, but people tend to think my experience is just a dislike. What they don’t understand is the absolute fear, and the panic attacks and nightmares that claustrophobia brings. People always tell me: “I don’t like lifts but I get into them”, as if it’s something I should just get over. But it’s so much more than that.

Claustrophobia is an irrational fear of enclosed spaces, not the natural anxiety most people experience in a situation where they could genuinely become trapped indefinitely. People living with my condition experience a hugely inflated sense of danger. 

My anxiety disorder and claustrophobia can have some overlapping symptoms - although there are parts of my anxiety that are completely unrelated.

Even though the NHS estimates that around 10% of people will be affected by claustrophobia at some point in their lives, being a 20-year-old woman who can’t lock doors or use a lift makes me feel really self-conscious.

Claustrophobia is often treated with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), but I’m yet to have formal treatment, and instead have just tried to cope with it. That might sound strange, seeing as I’ve had treatment for my anxiety disorder since I was 13 or 14. But my anxiety disorder affected my life in such huge ways - I couldn’t handle large crowds, struggled to make friends, and was trying to diet and basically cope with a million thoughts all at the same time. Things got so bad I actually had to leave school at A-level.

As a result, my claustrophobia took a back seat - because I had always managed to find a way to work around it, it didn’t overwhelm me in the same way.

But now that I'm older, and my anxiety is more controlled, the claustrophobia is more prevalent. I have to arrange my day around my phobia and that’s a huge challenge. The way I deal with it is by finding out what the toilets are like, whether there are stairs as well as a lift, and whose car I’m going in, all in advance.

I’m lucky that my long-term boyfriend, who I live with, is very supportive. He just doesn’t make a big deal of it. Neither do my friends. But when I’m with someone new, I find it hard. I feel so awkward telling a driver that I can’t sit in their car because they have a door with central locking. Instead, I sit in silence and try not to panic. 

I try not to let it get me down, but claustrophobia has stopped me doing a lot of things. My boyfriend and I love visiting London and we always see other people’s beautiful photos from the Shard or the London Eye. I can’t bring myself to consider going to either of them, even though I want to so badly – my body and mind just won’t let me.

An aeroplane through a windowistock / BBC Three

But that doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause. Just over a year ago, I overcame one of the toughest challenges that someone with my condition can face and took my first ever flight. It also resulted in me getting the first ever diagnosis for my claustrophobia.

I went to see my psychotherapist to talk about my anxiety, and how that would work on a flight. As part of my therapy, she gets me to talk through certain situations that make me anxious, and on that day, a lot of what I was describing were actually claustrophobic situations. Although I didn’t go into detail about it with her at the time, hearing her say those words out loud - "this sounds like claustrophobia" - gave me the confidence to acknowledge it.

Being stuck in a huge metal tube where you can’t even open the windows is usually terrifying for people with claustrophobia, but I finally got on a plane in November 2017.

We were flying to Malta in the early hours of the morning. When I arrived at the airport, still sleepy, I received extra assistance for my anxiety, meaning I could skip the queues for boarding and I would also be allowed to leave the plane first at the other end.

I was fine until I had to get into the tunnel towards the plane. But, when I saw the plane door, I just started crying. I’d made myself believe I'd be fine and reminded myself that so many other people do this. The second it became reality, though, I began second-guessing myself so much. 

Eventually, I did get onto the plane, but I felt sheer panic and I hated it. I got through the flight by concentrating on breathing and distracting myself with magazines. I’d also taken medicated tablets that I had from a previous prescription for my anxiety. When the plane started moving, I began panicking again.

 But I did it, and I'm proud to say that I’ve been on a plane again since.

A photo of the author smilingAimee Browes / BBC Three

And, despite all these challenges, I have a lot of other things to be proud of too. Although I quit my A-levels to get help for my mental health, I went back to college a year later, and now, at 20, I’m at university studying psychology. I’ve also started my own business and social enterprise which educates people about the role fitness can play in looking after our mental health. This new venture also allows me to work from home, which suits me so much better than working in spaces like a shop or office.

Although claustrophobia rules my life, there are steps that I'm taking to free myself from it. I tell myself that if I can accomplish so much in other parts of my life, I can with this as well. And who knows, maybe one day I will make it up to the Shard.

As told to Poorna Bell

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, information about help and support is available here 

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  • Comment number 7. Posted by dave

    22 Jan 2019 20:29
    I worked in office refurb as a contractor and in the space of 18 months got stuck in 5 lifts , the last lift I got trapped in the alarm was not working . I was in there for a few hours before I was found, it effected my whole life at that time .despite being in my mid 30s at that time I was unable to cope with the anxiety it left me with , about a week later I was due to do a weeks work on the 16th floor of an office block and I just couldn’t get in the lift , my claustrophobia became that bad in the following months that I even took my bedroom door off , much to my wife’s displeasure . We had a holiday booked and I hated the flight , it was another 6 years before I’d fly again . I wouldn’t go anywhere near a lift or anything that resembled one I too couldn’t use public toilets unless there was a gap under the bottom . From being somebody that had never had much anxiety I became anxious about everything and by my early forties I had a breakdown . Docs put me on anti depressants . I started to do things again I had a few flying lessons , put the doors back on . Eventually I started to recover but it took about 6 years before I’d enter a lift I still have a panic if a doors locked and It’s a struggle to open , I get in lifts now but only as a last resort if there’s a good stairwell I will walk . But if the lifts the only way I will use it
  • Comment number 6. Posted by Christopher

    21 Jan 2019 21:50
    My wife suffers from both claustrophobia and agoraphobia, poor darling. Attempts have been made to help her using CBT and hypnotism, but to no avail.
  • Comment number 5. Posted by Carol Katrawitz

    21 Jan 2019 17:33
    What caused 'severe anxiety' at that age? too many people are going to the doctor with 'bad nerves' or getting diagnosed with all sorts of 'disorders' these days that didn't exist 30 years ago, or certainly not in kids. Yeh, the claustrophobia is real, but anxiety at such a young age? Really? I'd have been sent to school and told to stop attention seeking and trying to bunk off lessons.
  • Comment number 4. Posted by LINDA

    21 Jan 2019 11:50
    I was also locked in a cuboard in Primary school and made me ill, it seemed an eternity but at least over the break, I got over it as I was younger I guess but I found in later years mid 30's after having my first child I began to have panic attacks which led to feeling claustrophobic and like yourselves found teribble fear, and that's what it is, in entering lifts, cars the same. At the age of 40 I had to fly with my children for the first time and fear would not stop me , my childrens Life of joy was at stake, I accomplished this but still cannot enter a lift on my own. I can easily go in with anybody else but the fear of pushing that button to open the door and walk in No way!!! I have walked down up 13 flights of steps ridiculous!!!
    Now I read a book " FEEL THE FEAR AND DO IT ANYWAY" , brilliant book now I can accomplish the normal things people do in Life without a moments hesitation, I know now its us ourselves we suffer the fear and we MUST GET OVER IT OURSELVES WITHOUT MEDICATION, we can do it tell our sub conscience that we are not scared we will master it , its not going to kill us, get on with it and doors open up for us everywhere and there is so much joy and excitement and awesome places and things to do !!!
  • Comment number 3. Posted by nigel

    21 Jan 2019 7:25
    I suffer also, planes are my worst nightmare and seeing that long thin tunnel of packed people makes me cringe now.
    If you can afford business class I can imagine it would be better.
  • Comment number 2. Posted by Liz

    19 Jan 2019 12:55
    I make sure I always have my phone in lifts and toilets due to my claustrophobia. It is getting better now due to repeating certain challenging actions until I feel less of a panic. Glad yours is getting better too :)
  • Comment number 1. Posted by DTF

    18 Jan 2019 19:18
    Well done Amiee i can guess what the plane was like, i have a form of claustrophobia the worst people i have have encountered are when i should of had a scan, being a fit 68 yr male made to feel silly no scan.