The Effect of Claustrophobia on Reaction Time

Experiencing claustrophobia has changed the norm of socializing for numbers of individuals around the world who undergo the irrational fear. Claustrophobia is an anxiety disorder that is the fear of closed environments or having no escape, such as elevators or crowded rooms with no windows. Placing an individual in a triggering situation may lead them towards severe levels of anxiety, hence, it is common that people who suffer from this phobia tend to avoid the situation that may put them through anxiety. Previous research has suggested individuals who experience claustrophobia have mentioned that they clearly avoid situations that could provoke their phobia. Claustrophobics, according to researchers, showed significant increases in physiological measures of heart beat and respiration than those who did not suffer from claustrophobia when put in events that aroused their fear (Miller & Bernstein, 1972). In Miller and Bernstein’s study, 28 participants were individually observed in a dark chamber with the door closed for a total of three minutes and then another time for ten minutes. Their heart beat and respiration was recorded; participants who were completely petrified of dark, enclosed spaces indicated that the test was too intense for them. Besides two participants, the rest claimed that their phobia of enclosed spaces was triggered on an everyday basis. Moreover, all participants claimed that they avoided everyday-life situations due to their claustrophobia.

Till this day, there has not been a found cause, genetic or conditioned, for claustrophobia. It is possible that due to a traumatic experience, claustrophobia can become conditioned and the individual will avoid small spaces. As for genetic mutations, a recent study conducted by Voikar et al. (2013) indicates that a leucine-rich repeat transmembrane protein (LRRTM) deficiency in mice seemed to stimulate claustrophobic behavior in mice. This defect showed implications to autism and schizophrenia and this specific protein associated with these deficiencies was shown to have been found in humans as well. The procedure for this study included multiple activities where they were put into situations to test how their deficiencies affected their progress. Voikar et al. (2013) had the mice placed in an arena, half-lit and half-dark, where the mice did not prefer to enter the dark compartment. For mice, it is genetic in the species of rodents to go through closed spaces or tunnels, it was typical of all the cohorts of this study who lacked LRRTM to avoid entering the smaller areas and tubes during these tests. The researchers noticed similar behavior like anxiety and fear when put into the appropriate situations that generally trigger claustrophobia (Voikar et al., 2013). This provided a great scientific aspect of how the lack of a protein was associated in avoidance of small or narrow areas.

In enclosed spaces, the claustrophobic individual’s physiological factors are initially affected. It is the claustrophobic event that the individual is in that induces high levels of anxiety and heart rates that make the person want to avoid the situations in everyday life. McIsaac, Thordarson, Shafran, Rachman, and Poole (1998) attempted at viewing how psychological reactions were affected in terms of claustrophobia and brought out procedures involving MRI scans that tested 80 patients between the ages of 17-82. Patients who suffered from claustrophobia displayed feelings of distress and panic during their MRI sessions. The process began with a Claustrophobia Questionnaire that asked several questions testing their level of anxiety; it involved many potential situations and asked how the participant would feel in each one. This study had a non-equivalent control group pre- and post-test design where they measured the anxiety levels of the participants five minutes before and five minutes after the MRI scan. They also followed up with a similar Claustrophobia Questionnaire one month later. The pre-scan test displayed measures of anxiety that were equal to those of the non-claustrophobic patients. Those who were taken in the scan feet-first had less anxiety than those who were taken head first. It was concluded that the anxiety brought in during MRI scans was due to claustrophobia. After the MRI scan, patients claimed that they had in increase in their fear of enclosed spaces. A similar study revolved around the same concept that the individuals who suffered from the irrational fear of enclosed spaces showed increasing rates of claustrophobia especially after they were put through an event that prompted it (Enders et al., 2011). While conducting their study, Enders et al. noticed that their participants had the most problematic period before the MRI began, during positioning, and even when reaching the final position. 98 participants, out of a total of 174, required sedation to complete their MRI as their claustrophobia prevented them from completing their MRI session. Both studies provided tests that measured anxiety levels after their treatments and it was determined that claustrophobics, after their sessions, did have significant increases in physiological factors, namely restriction and anxiety (Enders et al., 2011; McIsaac et al., 1998).

In comparison to other phobias very similar to claustrophobia, it is the one that brings the most drastic reactions to the people. Different phobias begin at various ages, although it is not defined as to which phobia kicks in at which specific age. ?–st (1987) had the intention of comparing ages for various phobias and their onsets and how the different ways of getting those fears had some association with age. The patients of this examinations were provided pretest assessment which measured their heart rate and anxiety levels. To prove that each participant was cleared for being a subject in the study, they underwent a screening process where multiple factors sorted them out into groups relative to their phobia such as claustrophobia and agoraphobia which are quite similar in itself. They were then given questionnaires that measured the severity of their fear. Next came a behavioral avoidance test where the claustrophobic patient had to enter a locked windowless space and stay in the confined area for a total of ten minutes. The participant’s heartbeat was observed throughout the entire test. Amongst the other phobias, claustrophobia ended up being the one that brought on the most anxiety to the participants. Agoraphobia, a similar phobia to claustrophobia, is when one is afraid of places that causes the individual to panic (?–st, 1987). Due to the panic, the subjects had the highest heart rate during the test and even before the test was initiated. Thus, physiological factors play a great part of social life as individuals with this fear often lean on avoidance behaviors in an everyday setting.

Although the intensity of the phobia may fluctuate over time, it is certain that if a claustrophobic was put into a closed space to test their reaction, their heart rate and anxiety levels will have increased greatly in comparison to before the treatment (Wood & McGlynn, 2000; ?–st, 1987; Enders et al., 2011). Research (Wood & McGlynn, 2000) suggests that placing a claustrophobic person in the same situation that triggered their claustrophobia causes their reaction to intensify and avoid those situations more than before. In Wood and McGlynn’s study, college students were measured through a questionnaire that tested fear while their heart rate was measured. They were then escorted to a room where they were present before an MRI simulator while they were still attached to a heartbeat recorder. The questionnaire and heartbeat observations showed that there was a clear increase in fear from their initial assessment to their first behavioral avoidance test. As this was a follow-up, 25% of the participants indicated that their fear had returned, and even increased, from doing the procedure again. Using the heart-rates recorded, the studies analyzed that the return of claustrophobia had an accurate percentage of 91.67% when put in the same situation again. Hence, it is the avoidance behaviors of individuals with claustrophobia that allows them to survive on a day-to-day basis without triggering increasing heart rates and anxiety levels.

Furthermore, the anxiety-inducing fear causes many physiological factors to react, and definitely not in a healthy way. As previous studies show, the reaction to claustrophobia in physiological terms ends with a significant increase in heart rate and anxiety levels. Van Diest, Smits, Decremer, Maes, and Claes (2010) explain these reactions by associating two components of bodily functions with the phobia: restriction and suffocation. When a claustrophobic individual is put in a situation where they feel restricted, it triggers the fear as they believe they cannot escape the potentially dangerous situation. Additionally, being in closed spaces allows them to believe there is insufficient air supply, thus bringing in the fear of suffocating (Van Diest, Smits, Decremer, Maes, & Claes, 2010). These studies show that claustrophobia has an effect of physiological bodily functions. The relationship of whether claustrophobia has an effect on reaction time measuring in minutes to escape a closed environment has not been investigated yet. A non-manipulated control group experiment will be used to test how claustrophobia impacts the reaction time, measured in seconds, to escape closed environments and its influence on physiological factors, specifically heart rate and anxiety levels, as well. Based on previous research, I hypothesize that if a person who experiences the anxiety-inducing fear caused by confined areas, namely claustrophobia, is placed in a specific situation triggering their fear, then their reaction time to closed environments will be faster than one who does not suffer from claustrophobia.

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