For many people, simply hearing about or seeing the small space that carried five people into the depths of the ocean this week is enough to make them feel claustrophobic themselves.
“I feel claustrophobic just looking at this picture [of people inside the sub],” wrote Twitter user @iamRichCole. Another person, @MeltingSnowBro, said, “This sub is so terrifying I feel like I’m going to throw up thinking about it … I’m so claustrophobic I couldn’t even get in that thing if there was a 100% chance of getting out alive.”
“I am soo claustrophobic that I physically feel ill when people are talking about this whole Titantic sub thing,” wrote @_law4.
Why do some people feel claustrophobic simply reading about the submersible? Here’s why you or others may be experiencing this and what you can do to help mitigate the added anxiety, according to therapists and psychologists.
What causes a person to be claustrophobic?
“Claustrophobia is an intense fear of confined spaces that interferes with one’s ability to function,” said Jessica Rabon, a licensed psychologist and host of the Psych Talk podcast. “Symptoms of claustrophobia are similar to those of anxiety or a panic attack, where one may have difficulty breathing, start sweating or shaking, feel hot or cold, lightheaded, nauseous, or feel an overwhelming sense of dread and need to escape the situation, among many other symptoms.”
The environments that trigger claustrophobia vary on an individual basis, but some common spaces include elevators, MRI machines, rooms with no windows, airplanes and, in this case, a submersible.
Why are some people experiencing claustrophobia just hearing about this news story?
According to experts, there are a few reasons the missing Titan sub may be triggering strong feelings and emotions for some folks.
“Claustrophobia can also rear its ugly head when learning that others are in a small space, because a person can easily imagine themselves in a similar situation,” said Cynthia Shaw, a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Authentically Living Psychological Services.
“A person with claustrophobia, due to their heightened levels of anxiety, can easily imagine being trapped in the submarine, submerged miles below sea level. Knowing that 5 people are trapped in a confined space somewhere in the vast ocean can spark thoughts of danger and death: Will they be found? Do they have enough food? How long will they be lost? What happens if someone is sick? Will they die of starvation?”
While claustrophobia is a major contributor to many peoples’ emotional reactions to the news, empathy and sincere concern for the submersible’s passengers are also at play.
“Imagining their families and wondering whether they will ever be reunited; further, sympathizing with the fear those people are experiencing even at this very moment is also stirring up anxiety and questions in many individuals,” Shaw said.
If you’re not having a profound emotional response to the news, you may simply be trying to protect yourself from emotional pain during this time.
“Many people can compartmentalize someone else’s experience and keep it separate from their own,” said Justin Puder, a licensed psychologist and mental health content creator. “This can be helpful in circumstances [when] we need to be grounded in what we can control.”
What can you do about the extra feelings of anxiety?
When your reaction to the news is overwhelming, including feeling claustrophobia related to the Titan submersible, it is important to limit your exposure to the source.
“Turning off the TV, disengaging from social media, or setting time limits on your exposure can be helpful,” Rabon said.
Shaw said that if you are experiencing heightened empathy or compassion fatigue with this news story, or with the news in general, self-care is your best friend.
“Whether you need to excuse yourself from a work meeting, phone a friend, veg out on the couch, or drown yourself in your favorite Netflix show, do what you need to do to take care of yourself and preserve your mental health,” she said.
Last but not least, Puder suggested talking to someone, whether it be a friend or mental health professional, if you’re feeling uneasy.
“Talking about what you’re experiencing to your partner, close friend, or therapist is always a good idea,” he said. “It helps release us from our emotions and typically relieves stress.”