As a kid I loved crawling into tiny spaces. My little child limbs contorting and twisting to get into whatever nook or cranny looked the coziest. Hiding under bushes, peeping out from those big circular clothing racks you find at department stores, wedging my way into a crawl space to while away an afternoon, I was like a gremlin. Then, one fateful day, I was at a McDonald’s, exploring the winding tubes of the “Playplace”. The snake-like tunnels were comforting, full of adventure and bubble-like windows to spy on the adults from above. Perhaps I was pretending to be an astronaut, navigating my way through the ISS. Or maybe I was imagining that I was a hamster and that the brightly colored pipes I trucked through were my cage. Normal kid stuff.

But then, I found something not normal at all for the tight, winding paths. Something you’d never want to find in a place where the only mode of locomotion is via your hands and knees. I found, enclosed at a junction with tubes leading off in all directions, lying there on the bright red plastic, a turd. I backed away, knowing that my days in small spaces were over. It was open air only for me from now on. 

Who knows if this “poop” incident is really what triggered claustrophobia in me, but I began to find small places made me almost unbearably anxious. Until I became a gamer that is.  

Ubisoft

I'm brave enough to go through the tiny passages now.

You know those in-game dungeons where you slide down a gravelly slope, knowing full well your character will never be able to climb back out the same way? Despite the walls being made of rock that you could easily cling to and climb on during other parts of the game? Some of our most powerful emotions work the same way: the only way out… is through. Just like we must delve into the bowels of a tomb in a game, to beat the baddies and literal skeletons that guard the treasure and experience we need to move forward, so too must we plumb the depths of our own psyches, lest we become emotionally stunted and repressed.

When I began gaming as an adult, I recognized the feelings of panic that arose in me everytime I delved into an ancient tomb in Skyrim or explored a forgotten cavern in Assassin’s Creed. But soldiering on, each time I used this exposure therapy, I felt that pit of discomfort unknot a little bit more. I played so many games, explored so many tight spaces, that now, Instead of tensing with panic when I slide through a crevasse in a game, I can simply take a deep breath and get back to exploring. I feel less claustrophobic than I have since childhood. I’d test this theory out in a McDonald’s Playplace to see if I’m totally cured, but there’s not enough hand sanitizer in the world to get me back in one of those things.

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