Treating claustrophobia by experiencing claustrophobia

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By Gabrielle Olano

A Ryerson PhD student is leading a research study on treatment strategies for those with claustrophobia by exposing them to their fear. 

The Claustrophobia Study is led by Kirstyn Krause, a clinical psychology PhD student, and supervised by Martin Antony, a professor in the Department of Psychology. As part of her dissertation, Krause and her team examine the best way to administer strategies for reducing claustrophobic fear and how a combination of these strategies can optimize treatment for anxiety disorders in general.

The study uses exposure therapy—which requires participants to confront their fear gradually, which in this case involves having them come face to face with an enclosed space. Along with cognitive therapy which evaluates how rational feared beliefs are, to guide those who suffer from the phobia in improving their condition.

“We have decades of research to show that exposure therapy is one of the most effective ways of treating anxiety disorders such as claustrophobia,” Krause told Ryerson Today. “Mental health professionals and researchers alike need more information about how and why exposure works.”

One of the enclosed spaces Krause uses for her study is a wooden box, where participants lay inside. They’re given the option to have the top closed or open, latched shut or unlatched, and other options that further restrain them, essentially allowing them to control the level of how far they can push themselves to face their fear.

“We know that the more you avoid something that you’re afraid of, particularly when there’s no actual danger or harm you will receive by going into that situation, that pattern of anxiety and avoidance actually makes the anxiety disorder worse,” said Krause.

Krause recruited 95 people from the GTA for the study. Sessions lasted around three and a half hours and included learning strategies and questionnaires. Participants followed up one month after the session about what they have learned and are given an opportunity to try the experience again. 

“Exposure therapy is really powerful because it provides someone the opportunity to actually learn that what they’re afraid of is not as bad as they initially think that it is,” said Krause. “Once you understand that, you can apply it to other kinds of anxiety disorders.”

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