Fear of lifts: 'My fear was ruling my life'

For years, Deborah Dooley has had a mortal terror of lifts. But could a therapy used to treat conditions from addiction to ME have her pressing the 'up' button?

Tuesday 28 September 2010 00:00 BST

The second-tallest building in London might seem an unlikely destination for someone who is terrified of lifts. Nevertheless, that's exactly where I was headed six weeks ago, nervous about my coming session with Phil Parker, osteopath, NLP practitioner and creator of the Lightning Process.

Defined by Phil Parker as a simple, elegant and powerful process to teach you how to get the life you love, the Lightning Process claims to help with all kinds of disorders, including depression, panic attacks, OCD, low self esteem, addictions and more contentiously, myalgic encephalitis (ME). And although I tend to shy away from labels like claustrophobia, I was hoping Parker could help me conquer my pathological fear of lifts, Tube trains and any kind of situation where I feel the slightest bit shut in.

I can't tell you how or why my fear began – and as Parker says, it doesn't really matter. But as far back as I can remember, I have been gripped by panic at the very sight of a lift. For me, the Tube is simply out of the question, and often just talking about either is enough to bring me out in a clammy sweat of anxiety. Since I live in rural Devon, this isn't a constant problem – but I when I do venture into more urban surroundings, it makes life difficult. I've had to ask complete strangers to take my luggage down in an airport lift. And if my room in the hotel I'm staying in is on a high floor, I have to allow extra time for getting there and back. But it was only during my preliminary chat on the phone with Parker that I owned up to being anxious in other situations. And the interesting thing was that I came off the phone much more relaxed about life in general. "I think I may have been hypnotised," I said to my husband. "But I wasn't in a trance." And although during our face-to-face chat – which was very informal indeed – I was asked to relax and close my eyes, there was never any question of my being any less than fully present.

The fun started almost immediately, when Parker himself greeted me in the rather lavish reception area in order to escort me up the staircase to his 9th floor offices. Charmed by this personal welcome, I soon realised it was practical. "I thought you might need a little support – the stairs are quite tight for space," he murmured soothingly. The stairwell was extremely small and narrow, with no natural light. And despite Parker's attempts to reassure me, blind panic soon took over, prompting me to tackle the problem by tearing up the 18 flights at top speed.

I think I realised this was something more than a straightforward treatment for a phobia, when Parker asked me to imagine several very positive situations, one after the other. Namely, somewhere that gives me a feeling of great space, a situation where I had felt in control and competent, a time where I felt my creativity was at a peak, and something or someone that makes me smile. With each, Parker tapped a spot on my hands, and then asked me to do the same, telling me firmly that from now on, whenever I tapped that place, I would get the corresponding feeling back. Obediently, I tapped – and it worked.

The visualisation we embarked on next – of me watching myself standing by a lift – easy to do and not unpleasant. Several times, using words that carefully avoided negative terminology, he asked me how I felt about the whole lift thing on a scale of one to 10. Slowly, the marker on my fear counter nudged its way downwards.

When, finally, Parker asked me how I felt about having a look at a lift, I waited for the chest-leap sensation usually triggered by just the thought of one of those moving boxes. None came, and a minute later we were in the lobby, lift-gazing. So far all good, and the next logical step was to get inside one – suddenly not unthinkable any more. Rejecting the first arrival, which had people in it – I hadn't ruled out the possibility of a panic, and didn't want any witnesses – we stepped inside the second. The doors slid shut. It was ok.

Up and down we went, a floor at a time, chatting and tapping my hands to reinforce the positive feelings. Predictably, the more we went up and down, the more relaxed I became. Within 10 minutes, not only had we soared to the 35th floor and sampled its breathtakingly panoramic view, but I had braved a solo journey. Alone in the lift, I wondered briefly what all the fuss was about, and then managed to tap my way through a very slight panic triggered by the pause before the doors open. (Oh my God, they're stuck.)

We finished the session with a rather lovely visualisation of my older, wiser, more coping self (like a big sister watching over me, said Parker). Then I said my goodbyes, stepped into the lift and pressed the button for the ground floor. During the brief descent, I found myself smiling in amazement and pleasure at the fact that I was so easily accomplishing something which for years, had been unthinkable. I hugged my new-found capability to me with obvious glee – to the amusement of fellow travellers – and reflected on how, in the end, divesting myself of what some call a phobia had been astonishingly swift and simple.

I think my fear of enclosed spaces will always be with me, but I believe that Parker has effectively furnished me with the means to conquer it whenever I need to. The Lightning Process works by methodically retraining the brain, and especially the subconscious, to overcome illogical feelings of terror, and issue clear instructions that all will be well.

For me, Parker also threw in an endearing dash of practicality when I confessed to my ultimate nightmare – being trapped in a lift, and suffocating. He pointed out that lifts are well ventilated, and asked me gently when I'd last heard of anyone dying as a result of being stuck in a lift.

It should be said that the lifts at we used are large, light and mirrored. And although my fear of enclosed spaces has definitely faded, I can't say I'd be happy in any confined situation. But having been in a lift for the first time in several decades, I am now prepared to consider using the Tube. And most importantly, the experience has provided me with a kind of psychological workbox that I can delve into when necessary and select exactly the right tool for the job. Leaving me with the potential to deal calmly with situations that until recently left me feeling anxious.

Without doubt, it has been a giant step in the right direction.


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