Fears of the Irrational Kind Feeling There's No Escape Causes Phobias

By Bob Secter Of The Chicago Tribune Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 23, 1996 | Go to article overview

Fears of the Irrational Kind Feeling There's No Escape Causes Phobias


Bob Secter Of The Chicago Tribune Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


SHANNON LUCID, your ride's here.

And it's about time. Six months locked in a floating house trailer looking at the same unshaven cosmonaut mugs would be enough to drive lesser women, or men for that matter, more than a little buggy.

After all, how many times can you play "I spy some space junk" or float off the same old titanium-alloy walls? For the claustrophobic, the experience of the 53-year-old biochemist astronaut with the illuminating name would be enough to set their guts wobbling like a whacked-out gyroscope. Weather and mechanical problems kept Lucid marooned on the Russian space station Mir long after her planned four-month tour. As the Space Shuttle sped late Wednesday to fetch her, many down on terra firma wondered how she could have kept her wits and wit about her in exceedingly close quarters from which, practically speaking, there was no exit. "For someone with claustrophobia, that would be a fate worse than death," said Jerilyn Ross, president of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. Psychologists break phobias into a handful of categories - their causes are thought to be an amalgam of genetics, trauma and childhood experiences - but at their heart, many are variations of claustrophobia, the panicky fear of being trapped in some place or situation from which there is no escape. At a minimum, the experience of Lucid highlights the two general camps: Those who see a space trip as an exhilarating adventure, an adrenalin-pumping exploit to the final frontier. Those for whom merely reading about Lucid's delay sends them scurrying for the nearest Maalox, or, perhaps, wastebasket. Lucid falls in the former category. With the screening capacities available to psychologists - everything from written tests to virtua l-reality programs that can vividly simulate the cramped conditions of space - it's a safe bet that those who lack a strong sense of internal control would never make it past the Cape Canaveral observation deck. But how can some comfortably orbit in a spacecraft or, for that matter, dive in a submarine or labor in a coal mine, all situations that in many others would trigger a panic that would make Black Tuesday resemble a tea party? "Some people actually thrive on testing themselves to the nth degree," Ross explained. "It's almost counterphobic." Phobia, by definition, means something that is irrational. Psychologists agree that phobias can be funky. It is possible that a person who is not afraid of crowded elevators or small rooms might still get weird facing a prolonged period in a tiny space surrounded by nothing. Phobias can be spawned by traumas both fleeting and grave - a subway train briefly stuck in a tunnel, a childhood punishment of being locked in a darkened room. After a DC-10 crashed in 1989 in Sioux City, Iowa, and wound up in a cornfield, psychiatrists found that many survivors came away with a disgust for corn. …

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