Directionally-Specific Claustrophobia

This story isn’t intended to be funny, but it is interesting.

Whenever a claustrophobic client is encountered, conventional wisdom says, “every room has to be huge.” But I’ve learned to say, “You’re claustrophobic? Which way?”

Throughout my four decade long career as a home designer, I’ve encountered many people with a special condition, claustrophobia, which is a critical issue when designing a home. Imagine living in a house that causes anxiety in every room and around every corner, with no safe place to go, anytime, ………ever.

I’m not a trained psychological expert, but my experience does allow me to make some basic observations. Claustrophobia is very often “directional.” People sense their surroundings in different ways, to different degrees, and in specific directions. Some people fear the feeling of being confined overhead, such as a low ceiling. Others feel the oppression from the side, or front, or back. By investigating, understanding, and concentrating on the direction of anxiety, it becomes a simple task to concentrate on the directions that matter, and exclude the directions that don’t. An important factor is to determine if the phobia concerns a single direction, multiple directions, or all directions.

  • As an aside, there’s one more category to consider – none of the above. For people who fear getting into an elevator, it’s very often not the confined space of the elevator, but the fear that the elevator will fall. So there. With that one sentence, for thousands of readers, I’ve healed the fear of confinement, but replaced it with the fear of falling. It’s not easy being “mental.” Now, back to c-phobia.

My very basic definition of claustrophobia is : A sense of the impending force of a possible attack, whether physical or emotional, that instills a desperate need to escape.

My observation that c-phobia is directional helps me design homes that remove or reduce the sense of impending attack from a specific direction, thus reducing the clients need to escape. I don’t know any technical terms, so I’ve created some of my own. They sound like a joke, but I seriously use them to define the direction of claustrophobia suffered by a client.

Claustro-head-a-phobia : The fear of being attacked from above. Low ceilings or low-hanging objects instill the fear of running into something, being caught in a collapse, or attacked by “something” from above. The other side of this is ceilings that are too tall or harbor shadows from which danger could spring.

Claustro-feet-a-phobia : The fear of tripping or being grabbed by the feet. A floor cluttered with such objects as potted plants, tables and chairs in a restaurant, multiple scattered and layered rugs, even a complex pattern in the design of the floor itself, causes the need to be separated from the area confined by the objects.

Claustro-torso-phobia : The fear of being confined at the chest, shoulders and arms. Examples are : Stores with tall display cases, chest-high clothing racks, rooms decorated with shoulder-high plants, closet and cabinet doors that “invade” a person’s space as the doors swing open.

Claustro-front-a-phobia: The fear of too little space to move and too little air to breathe directly in front, such as standing between rows of clothes in a narrow walk-in closet.

Claustro-back-a-phobia : The fear that an attack can come from the back, making it necessary to constantly monitor the area behind the sufferer, even in the person’s own house, where danger lurks around every corner and within every shadow; or to sit back-against-the-wall, so nothing can be behind the sufferer.

Claustro-left-a-phobia and Claustro-right-a-phobia : The sense of danger from a specific side, left or right. I haven’t been able to find evidence to suggest that right handed people are more often right-a-phobic, or that the converse is true. My observation has been that people who are “side”-a-phobic fear danger specifically from the left or right. I try to make sure that there are plenty of open spaces such as arches and windows to relieve the stress from the left or right.

Never try to save a customer from claustrophobia. The sensations and anxieties they fear are as real to them as you are to yourself. Instead, listen, observe, and try to understand the directionallity of the phobia. Sometimes, if you can uncover the direction of the fear, it can enlighten the customer by revealing the source, and instill relief by the realization that the oppressive force isn’t all-surrounding. Then, you can design features in the house that address the actual fears for specific directions, like a wider aisle in a walk-in closet for a front-a-phobic, or by eliminating ceiling fans and chandeliers for a head-a-phobic. I have witnessed the life-changing relief that people feel when they make the personal discovery that danger doesn’t exist on every side.


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