Understanding the Fear of Elevators

Businessman in elevator
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Although it has no official "phobia" name, the fear of elevators is relatively common. According to the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation, over 210 billion passengers use elevators in the U.S. and Canada each year. But many people feel at least a slight nervousness when contemplating a long elevator ride.

In some people, the fear of elevators is triggered by an existing phobia, but the fear often appears alone. Like any phobia, the fear of elevators ranges from mild to severe.

Phobias Related to Elevators

Elevators are a common trigger for claustrophobia and agoraphobia.

  • Claustrophobia is defined as the fear of enclosed spaces. As a relatively small and confined box, it is easy to see how an elevator could cause a claustrophobic reaction.
  • Agoraphobia is the fear of being trapped in a situation in which escape would be difficult or impossible should a panic attack occur. Those with agoraphobia typically avoid “clusters” of related situations, and many people with agoraphobia have no problem with elevators at all. Nonetheless, an elevator would be difficult to escape, and it is not unusual for people with agoraphobia to avoid elevators.

Previous Experiences

Many phobias can be traced to a previous experience that caused fright. Those who have been stuck in an elevator, even briefly, may be more likely to develop an elevator phobia. However, the experience need not have happened to you.

Elevators are prominently featured in many horror movies, Halloween events, and other scary pop culture moments. On the rare occasion that something goes wrong with an elevator in real life, the story is constantly rebroadcast for days in the media, and the video may circulate online for years.

Watching something scary happens in an elevator may be enough to trigger this fear.

The Truth About Elevator Safety

Like anything else in life, riding an elevator carries a very small risk. However, the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation points out that many people have strong misconceptions as to how an elevator works.

In 1853, Elijah Otis revolutionized the elevator industry by implementing a safety brake system to engage in the event of a hoist rope failure. Since then, technological advancements and industry regulations have vastly increased the safety of elevators.

Today, elevators are supported by multiple cables, each of which is strong enough to carry more than the weight of a fully-loaded car. Outer doors capable of opening only when the elevator car is firmly settled in place make it virtually impossible to fall down a shaft. Speed governors and other devices work in tandem to guide cars safely to their destinations.

Modern elevator cars are designated "safe rooms," making them the safest place to be if the system should fail. Elevator cars have emergency phones and alarms, allowing passengers to call for help. They are not airtight, and stuck passengers are in no danger of running out of air.

Nonetheless, elevator accidents do occasionally occur. Elevators get stuck now and then, and in very rare circumstances, passengers have been trapped for more than a day. Other than hungry, thirsty, and a bit bored, the passengers are just fine.

Even more rarely, something goes catastrophically wrong with an elevator. In 2011, for example, two women died two weeks apart on opposite sides of the country. The accident in California was apparently due to rider error—the woman attempted to climb from the elevator when it stopped between floors. The elevator was inspected and found to be working normally. However, the accident in New York City that year was blamed on maintenance workers who did not properly reconnect a safety system.

Safety Tips

While it is impossible to remove all theoretical risks from any machine, the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation provides a list of safety tips for riders to follow. Among the advice:

  • Use the Door Open button to hold the doors for slower riders rather than attempting to push the doors open.
  • Keep all carry-on items and clothing clear of the doors.
  • Remain in the elevator car in case of an emergency.
  • Take the stairs if fire may be present.

Overcoming Elevator Phobia

For many people, learning the safety rules and becoming familiar with elevator operation is enough to curb a mild fear. Simply sitting and watching a glass elevator for a few hours can help take away some of the anxiety as well.

If your fear is more severe or persistent, however, professional assistance may be required. Elevator phobias have caused people to turn down good jobs on high floors, avoid visiting loved ones in high-rise hospitals and push themselves to ascend dozens of flights of stairs.

With professional assistance and a bit of hard work, there is no need for elevator phobia to take over your life.

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  • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Washington, DC; 2013.