The first time I experienced the crippling and frightening anxiety of my claustrophobia was on a school activity holiday in Shropshire. It was a week long break and we spent most of our time doing exciting things like quad biking, abseiling, orienteering, raft building and canoeing. We also did not so exciting things, like (shudder) pot holing and caving.
I didn’t really know what caving involved at the time and from the way it was explained to me, I imagined a relaxed wander through a giant, open cave. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to have to climb through holes not much bigger than my head, but that’s what it involved. Funnily enough the idea of climbing through small holes was actually quite fun at the time, that is until you actually have to do it. And then it hits you like an express train, the fear, the blind panic, fright, dread. It all happens at once and you feel like you’re going to die. But of course, you’re not.
Eventually I calmed down and after 15 mins or so an instructor escorted me out of the cave with another girl who felt exactly the same way I did.
That was my first experience and there have been many more in my 30 years on this planet. I would get twitchy if I used lifts, especially busy ones. Trains, planes, small rooms (including the cellar of a pub I used to work at) and tunnels all made me anxious. I once had a panic attack going under the bed to fetch a tennis ball.
In 2007 a consultant I was seeing for a persistent eye problem ordered an MRI scan of my brain to rule out anything sinister. I didn’t object because I knew it was obviously the right thing to do, but I was immediately anxious and worried. With my claustrophobia, how was I ever going to get in an MRI machine? Let alone stay in one long enough to be scanned.
I thought about it for a few days after seeing the consultant and having nearly cancelled the scan multiple times, I decided I’d need some help to tackle my MRI claustrophobia and anxiety and get me through. I explored many, many different ideas and after speaking to a lot of people and understanding their experiences, it quickly became apparent that what works for one person may not work for another, so it’s about finding something that you can use.
It was a combination of things that eventually worked for me and I’m confident they can work for anybody. It’s a cliche, but this is mind over matter and you have the ability to control your thoughts and get through a scan, just like I did. The three main things that helped me (and still help me today) are:
- ● Rationalisation
- ● Breathing
- ● Practice
Let’s look at each of those in more detail.
You have to rationalise what’s in front of you when you’re calm so that if you get overcome with panic, you can bring some reality to the situation. If you feel panic creeping in, your brain is reacting automatically to get you out of danger, a sort of fight or flight response. But in reality you are completely safe and you need to remind yourself of that and break that thought process.
Be aware of when you start to feel twitchy or uncomfortable, be on the lookout for it so you can tackle it head on before it takes over. Smile, breathe and tell yourself:
- ● You are in complete control. If you needed to, you could be out of the scanner within seconds. You are in control.
- ● You are completely safe. You can’t get stuck in an MRI machine.
- ● It will be over very soon. This is only temporary.
- ● I can breathe very easily in tight spaces.
- ● I am mentally strong enough to get through this.
When I first started practicing these affirmations, I was saying the words but not really believing them. Don’t just say them, think about the sentences and what they mean, say them and believe them. It’s all true. You are in complete control of the situation and you are completely safe. You’re surrounded by highly experienced people using state of the art equipment designed with patient safety in mind. You will not get stuck in an MRI machine, it simply doesn’t happen.
You might have your own unique thought patterns that plague you. If so, design your own rationalisations to tackle them head on, don’t ignore them.
I needed something stable and consistent to focus on during the MRI scan to prevent my mind from wandering. Breathing is the perfect thing to focus your mind. We obviously all breathe without thinking too much about it but the key to this helping you during a scan is a rhythm. For example, you might take a nice controlled breath in for 6 seconds and then out for 4 seconds. Or in for 8 seconds and out for 5.
This simple breathing technique is what got me through the scan and why I feel I could tackle another one with complete confidence. The breathing rhythm relaxed me, distracted me and made me feel good. Whenever I started to feel a bit panicky, I would automatically just come back to my breathing and focus entirely on that. It was sometimes a challenge, especially when the MRI scanner was at its loudest, but you just need to persevere and trust the breathing.
Find a nice controlled rhythm that works for you and then count inhales and exhales one after the other.
You can practice your breathing anywhere and I recommend you practice it enough so it becomes familiar and comforting. Don’t just turn up on the day and start trying it for the first time in the scanner!
I also practiced being in a tight space by using my old nemesis, the bed. I lay on the floor parallel and edged under little by little each day, until I was under. I stayed there for 10 mins at a time and practiced breathing as above. On reflection, I don’t think this was necessary but it did help me practice breathing in a more anxiety heightened situation.
These ideas won’t make the scan easy (I don’t think it’s easy for anyone) but they will help you own the situation and stay in control of your thoughts and feelings.
There will be times when you think you can’t do it and you need to get out, even with all the techniques in the world. But just stay calm and continue with the plan. The panic will pass and you’ll regain control.
I spent 45m 18s fully submerged in an MRI machine (head scan remember!) without any music and although I had to work at staying calm and in control, I got through it. If I can do it, I honestly believe anyone can do it.