Claustrophobia and The Fear of Death and Dying

by John A. Speyrer


"I know that I shall die soon and my mind is reconciled to it; but when I think that my body will be put into a coffin, that the lid of the coffin will be screwed down and I will be buried under the earth, I am horrified. I am well aware that my horror is unreasonable, that I shall not be feeling anything by then, but I cannot overcome this feeling."

-- Alexander Sergeyevich Buturlin, 1915, quoted by
Sergei Tolstoy, Tolstoy Remembered by his Son

In recent years local hospitals began vying with one another as they advertised in local newspapers their use of the latest in imaging devices. The machinery was described as being "open," which meant that the patient would not have to lie completely enclosed in a narrow tube during the sometimes long procedure. The ads emphasized that patients undergoing MRIs would not have to suffer the fear of claustrophobia if the procedure was done at their facility. Claustrophobia is usually defined as, “an abnormal fear of enclosed or narrow spaces."

What causes claustrophobia?

A surprisingly large percentage of the population suffers from the fear of physical confinement. Physician Frank Lake has written a perceptive article on this subject. Entitled, Birth Trauma , Claustrophobia and LSD Therapy, the author explains that this phobia, "(t)ogether with the reverberating record of these physical happenings, the concomitant feelings, which are often of high and panic intensity, continue as undisposed-of affect, and as such seek re-expression. . . ." Psychologist, Otto Rank (The Trauma of Birth, 1924) wrote that '". . . every opportunity which somehow 'reminds' the child - mostly in a symbolic way - of the birth trauma is used again and again for the abreaction of the undisposed-of affect."'(Quoted in Lake, ibid.)

Of all the psychological phobias possible, claustrophobia can rise to the highest and most severe of them all. Lake explains, "The Latin root claustrum is a bar, or bolt, or lock. In this sense claustrophobia is not simply fear of the reduced space, but of the bolts and locks that bar the way out." (Lake, ibid.) Such fears of not being able to exit the situation is a common element in claustrophobia. Indeed, in many situations which combine darkness and physical and emotional pain, it is the most important element.

Dr. Lake quotes fascinating material from the Jesuit priest and anthropologist, Teilhard de Chardin's, The Phenomenon of Man . While the book is not about birth trauma, de Chardin, in this compiled paragraph, unconsciously writes in a stream of consciousness that actually reveals a part of his own unconscious, namely repressed trauma about his own birth experience. His references to the timeless suffering of humanity are obviously a description of the suffering endured during his own birth. His metaphors make that clear. They are not coincidental choices:

"The great secret pre-occupation of modern man is to find some means to escape from a shut-in world, from the futility of a 'dead-end', the fear of immobility, the anguish of being in a hermetically sealed world, unable to find a way out." The quest for an 'issue' (Fr.) is always with him, for an escape, opening, outlet, outcome, end or solution. "Human beings experience themselves" he says, "as miners trapped through an accident deep down in the earth. For these miners to summon up the courage needed for the difficult struggle to climb back up the shaft they have to pre-suppose two things: some opening exists at the other end, and when that opening is reached, there will be air to breathe again." Man may suspect that "the opening at the other end leads to what is inhuman or subhuman", "deformed and on a level lower than the noblest aspirations of man." [emphases mine]

Teilhard de Chardin makes a connection between three things, which ultimately are about himself: a traumatic birth which involves life and death feeling of being trapped – his subsequent life and death fear triggered in a narrow enclosed space -- and his sense of the world and philosophy of life, which he relates to those feelings.

Otto Rank regarded the baby's experience of parturition as one of the fundamental sources of claustrophobic feelings in that constellation of symptoms he and others have associated with birth. Rank felt that one's neurosis is unconsciously chosen and is often decided by the process ". . . of one's birth, and of the special point of attack of the trauma, and the individual reaction to it." (Lake, ibid)

Hungarian-born psychoanalyst, Nandor Fodor, studied birth trauma through the interpretation of the dreams of his clients. His book, The Search for the Beloved: A Clinical Investigation of the Trauma of Birth and Pre-Natal Conditioning, (1949), claimed that cases of claustrophobia often have their origin in the trauma of birth.

More recently, Dr. Arthur Janov, Ph.D., has written in Imprints: The Lifelong Effects of the Birth Experience (1983), that confinement is a typical trigger to claustrophic feelings. Like Lake, Janov feels that claustrophobic feelings are derived from birth and can also include reactions to restrictions of behavior as when one of his therapists complained about the "lack of space to grow" at The Primal Institute. "I need more space for myself" she insisted. After feeling the feelings pushing these ideas, she felt freer and her work environment became "more permissive and open. . . . She could 'breathe' again." (Janov, op. cit., p. 153.) Interestingly, Dr. Janov remarks that LSD is one of the most potent releasers of birth fears (ibid., p. 154).

Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof believes that during the period when the cervix is not yet fully open is one of the most horrendous experiences we can have during our lifetime. It can result in a lifelong pattern of claustrophobic feeling. The periodic compression of arteries at this time can also cause anoxia. It is a time when feelings of helplessness and hopelessness are common.

"Feelings of loneliness, guilt, and absurdity of existential despair reach metaphysical proportions. A person in this predicament often becomes convinced that this situation will never end and that there is absolutely no way out." (Grof, Psychology of the Future, pps. 41-42) Dr. Grof believes that, "The relation of phobias to the birth trauma is most evident in the fear of close and narrow places (claustrophobia)" occuring mostly in elevators (and) small rooms without windows." Departing the phobic environment immediately dissipates the fear. (Grof, Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death and Transcendence in Psychotherapy. 1985), p. 280.

Virginia Tech Terror

[An expanded version of this section has been moved to Virginia Tech Terror /Birth Terror ]
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I have personally known an instance (the case) of a woman who during an annual physical examination suffered severe life and death panic while being in the confined space of an MRI imaging device. Because of fear and panic, the test was terminated. An obsessive fear of dying and of death developed in the following days and weeks as she went into a deep depression. Her illness was so severe that psychiatric hospitalization became necessary and all items with which she could self-injure were removed.

She had returned home after having been prescribed large amounts of anti-depressant medication. She had not married and could not be left alone. She needed the continual presence and assistance of one of her two sisters with whom she lived. At age 73 she was admitted into a nursing home and died there in her sleep the same year.

I attended her funeral. Her young cousin gave the eulogy. He mentioned that she had endured a premature birth and a complicated delivery from which she had not been expected to survive.

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