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Washingtonians Confront Claustrophobia By Caving

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Adam Lake explores Whitings Neck.
Sabri Ben-Achour
Adam Lake explores Whitings Neck.

You're 60 feet underground, upside down, in a hole in a rock. Water is dripping on you. Everything is dark. It's so silent that the whirring of your own organs seems as noisy as a traffic-filled street. This is what it's like to go hard-core caving. For a claustrophobe, it's a nightmare beneath the earth. And yet, this is exactly how Amber Lehman treated her fear of confined spaces. But it's also how some cavers "develop" a fear of caves.

Caving: Torture to some, peaceful to others

An hour and a half outside of Washington, longtime spelunker Keely Owens leads a group through chamber after chamber, hundreds of feet into the earth. The group enters an 8-foot tube in a rock not more than 3 feet high. For Owens, these tight crawls are exhilarating, and the undiscovered quiet spaces are peaceful and nurturing.

"This is like twister," she says. "It's like a 3-dimensional puzzle you've got to solve with your body. So that's the fun part of it."

For some other people, however, it's far from fun. Owens says she's seen people become disoriented in the cave, and some feel like they're going to fall over.

Caving to overcome claustrophobia

Lehman works on the second floor of a downtown Ballston office building, where the walls are all glass and the light pours in. She's a recovering claustrophobic.

"I could not go in elevators above the second floor," she says. "If the elevator was packed with four or five people, I would wait and take the stairs. I would go into complete panic mode. I think it's more of a fear of 'I can't get out'. College classrooms with three or four hundred people, I would sit by the door. Easy escape."

One day, a friend of hers suggested she do something about it. The suggestion? Caving. Lehman thought the idea was crazy. She passed on caving trip after caving trip, until finally something possessed her to give it a try.

"I was anticipating completely freaking out, having a panic attack, which I'd had before, a panic attack is very similar to a heart attack; you think you're dying," she says. "And I prepared for that. So I said, if I have a panic attack, I know I am with someone who can get me out of this cave within 15 minutes."

But Lehman received reassurance from her friends who were experienced in caves. They taught her cave safety, and avoided tight spaces. After that, something crazy happened. She began to enjoy caving.

"I found that I actually started loving it," she says. "And the further we got in, the better I felt."

Not only can Lehman now deal with crowds, elevators, and tight spaces, she helps run a caving club and leads expeditions nearly every weekend. But this isn't actually all that strange.

Facing your fears

"The main treatment for phobias is something called exposure therapy," says Joseph Bienvenu, an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical School. "It involves getting into a situation that you would typically avoid, letting your anxiety be there, until it decreases substantially."

He says that if people stick with it, start small, anxiety levels will fall. But if they spend too much time away from the situation, their fear builds up again.

Owens says mastering fear is a life skill and life-saving skill, and she says the worst thing that happens to people when they're in a cave is that they panic. Panicking, she says, takes the mind out of the moment. In fact, Owen says long time spelunkers sometimes develop anxieties around caving because they stop and think too much.

"Usually for people who feel comfortable in a cave, it's a neat liberating place to be because there are no rules," she says. "You just get to express yourself and explore, and do what your body and the cave allow you to do. Then something in their life changes, and they sit back and start thinking over a lot of their old stories. And it hits them how many times they got lucky... they were playing roulette. The more you think about something, the more you can work yourself up into a phobia about it."

But for Lehman, this is a lesson in how to manage fear. She says it's important to keep a balance between thinking things through, and not overthinking them, living in the moment.

"When I'm out in my regular life, which is actually a lot harder to manage than caving, and I find myself in a situation that just feels like it's too small, too hard, too difficult, I think 'it's OK! Calm down, take your time, take a breath, let the panic pass through you, and sing.'"

[Music: "All Falls Down" by Kanye West from Instrumentals]

Photos: Spelunking


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