science of us

The Quest to Cure Myself of My Elevator Phobia

Photo: joshblake/Getty Images

At one of my first jobs, I had an office where — if you stood up and craned your neck a little — you could catch a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, far downtown. This was exciting, in a Working Girl kind of way, but it also meant I worked on the 44th floor of a midtown high-rise, which soon presented a problem. One day, an elevator in the building failed to open when it stopped on the ground floor, instead sending itself shooting upward again. I stumbled out onto a random floor, safe but now agitated.

And so it began: a dread of elevators that I couldn’t shake. And I’ve got plenty of company.

Joanne, a graphic artist, has been afraid of elevators for as long as she can remember. “My mom said that even as a baby, I shied away from them,” she recalls. “I can remember being, like, 3, and thinking, Maybe I shouldn’t go in there.”

Kimberly, a former Legal Aid attorney turned stay-at-home mom, says that her aversion really kicked in when she found herself in a stalled elevator at work. Stuck for more than an hour, she worried about running out of air, and she and the others eventually escaped by jumping out between floors when a colleague pried open the doors — “probably very dangerous,” she says.

There are about 70,000 passenger elevators in New York City, according to the city’s Department of Buildings, and people make about a billion trips up and down each year. For many, this just means convenience and accessibility, but for some, like me, it means daily confrontations with fear, anxiety, and even a hampered life. I don’t work on the 44th floor anymore, but I know my life would be easier if I didn’t have this particular phobia — so, determined to conquer my fear, I embarked on a fact-finding mission.

My first stop was to talk with Rick Chandler, the commissioner of the Department of Buildings, which is tasked with deputizing and licensing private inspectors to keep NYC’s elevators in good working order. Licensed elevators in New York City have to be inspected twice yearly, he says, and every five years they undergo a “comprehensive” inspection, which includes testing all buttons, gauges, doors, and the underlying mechanisms, and making sure they can carry their full licensed load. (The DOB keeps a van full of gym weights that can be carted onto the elevators for this purpose.)

And while there are occasionally grisly accidents — in 2014, two people were killed while trying to open doors of elevators that had gotten stuck between floors — elevators are, by any measure, extremely safe. In late 2017, Chandler reported that there had been only 52 injuries aboard licensed elevators that year, and most of them were minor. In terms of rate of injuries incurred, he said, walking down the sidewalk is a far more dangerous activity. (I also asked him about the possibility of running out of air if you got stuck: “Elevators are not airtight,” he said, so there is plenty of airflow, though if you were stuck for a while with a number of people, things might get a bit “stuffy.”)

The DOB itself is more worried about human behavior — specifically, humans doing dumb things to put themselves in danger. In 2015, the department created a public safety campaign designed to teach New Yorkers what to do in the unlikely event that an elevator were to get stuck. Called “Stay Safe, Stay Put,” the campaign recommends an easy set of steps, albeit ones that are rarely articulated: people should simply ring the bell for help, wait for it, and “stay put.” (Don’t jump up and down like the elevator attendant in You’ve Got Mail, for instance.) Yes, you can use your cell phone, says Chandler, though the building’s staff or police or firefighters should be quickly on their way once you’ve sounded the alert. Most important: “Never pry open doors,” he said.

For those who don’t find themselves soothed by information, though, therapy can make a difference. William Golden, a cognitive-behavioral therapist and hypnotist in New York, often treats people who hate or fear elevators. Elevator phobia can be a “specific phobia,” he says — happening only in that one setting — or it can be a part of a larger claustrophobia. “These individuals could have a fear of elevators, airplanes, tunnels, traffic jams, small room without windows, could even be sporting events and concerts, without quick access to an exit.”

People with such phobias often want to just avoid those panic-inducing circumstances — take the stairs, walk instead of drive, etc. But Golden argues that “the more you avoid, the more afraid you become.” The therapy he provides instead “involves taking small steps in the right direction.” After an assessment, the “basic treatment is exposure therapy,” where you face your fears, from the easiest toward the most difficult. For instance, he might first ride an elevator with a patient, and talk to them while they go. Slowly, the patient would build up to riding alone, while, perhaps, listening to Golden’s soothing reminders to breathe and so forth on their phones, or talking to themselves with a script of factual reminders that they’ve devised: “The elevator has plenty of air.” “Even though there might be a delay of a few seconds, the doors will open.” After 10 to 12 sessions, he says, most people feel a lot better.

Hearing that actually made me feel better — even if I didn’t actually go to therapy on my own, maybe I could adopt the techniques, cobbling together my own system for reducing my fears (or at least muscling through them more ably). Using facts from Chandler — “This elevator has been inspected,” “If the elevator gets stuck, there is a plan,” “Help will arrive” — I devised a form of Golden’s self-talk advice, backing it up with my own Boy Scout-ish commitment to being always prepared: I make sure to carry a charged cell phone, have a bottle of water in my bag, and ask a colleague or building attendant to ride with me, just in case. I haven’t had another elevator incident yet, but I’m ready.

The Quest to Cure Myself of My Elevator Phobia