Too Close for Comfort

Exaggerated sense of near space may lead to claustrophobia

By Carol Clark

Woman afraid of a small space

back off: People who need more personal space are prone to claustrophobia.

iStockphoto

We all move around in a protective bubble of “personal space,” but not everyone’s bubble is the same size.

People who project their personal space farther than the norm of arm’s reach are more likely to experience claustrophobic fear, found Emory researchers.

The study, in the journal Cognition, is one of the first to focus on the perceptual mechanisms of claustrophobic fear. “We’ve found that people who are higher in claustrophobic fear have an exaggerated sense of the near space surrounding them,” says psychologist Stella Lourenco, who led the research.

About 4 percent of people are estimated to suffer from full-blown claustrophobia, which can cause them to have panic attacks when traveling through a tunnel or riding in an elevator.

Claustrophobia is often associated with a traumatic experience, such as getting stuck in an elevator for a long period. “However, we know that some people who experience traumatic events in restricted spaces don’t develop full-blown claustrophobia,” Lourenco says. “That led us to ask whether other factors might be involved.”

Evidence shows that we treat space that is within arm’s reach differently from space that is farther away. “It makes adaptive sense to be more aware of things that are closer to the body, for both utilitarian purposes and defensive ones,” Lourenco says.

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