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Elevator deaths rekindle phobics' worst fears

Are you afraid of elevators?
Are you afraid of elevators?

Stories this week about shocking elevator deaths in New York -- including one in which a woman was crushed and killed and another in which a woman was attacked and set on fire -- horrified millions, but none as much as those who suffer from severe elevator phobias.

Such events are rare, but they rivet the attention of people who have trouble even riding an ordinary elevator to the next floor, sufferers and experts say.

"That was the first and maybe the only article I read in the New York Times," says Jane Murphy, a 52-year-old Dallas business owner, referring to the crushing accident. "It was horrible and I felt bad about her but in my mind it was just another confirmation as to why I don't like elevators."

Murphy says she's had her phobia for decades and can even remember walking up 14 flights of stairs to her family's condo as a teenager.

"I've even gone to meetings with clients and gotten them to open the door for me on the 10th floor since those doors are always locked," she says. "Sometimes I can force myself to ride one but other times, I can't step on. I don't have a choice. It feels like a do or die decision."

For Murphy, it's not so much a fear of dying in the elevator as a fear of getting trapped.

"I don't worry about tragedies, I worry about getting stuck," she says. "I think it's a control factor. It's all about being stuck in this sealed container."

According to Elizabeth Lombardo, a clinical psychologist who uses cognitive behavioral therapy to help people overcome fears, elevator phobias are relatively common (although not so common to be included on this comprehensive phobia list) and are definitely treatable.

"They're common and the reasons are twofold," says Lombardo, author of "A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness." "One is the lack of control and the potential for death, i.e., the elevator is going to drop 20 stories and kill you and you have no control. The other component is claustrophobia because you're in a confined space. I have some clients who will only go in an elevator if there's only one person or no people in it. I've had clients not take jobs because they couldn't ride an elevator to their office."

Lombardo says the problem with elevator phobias is that it's actually possible for an elevator to suddenly drop a few floors or crush someone's limb -- or worse.

"When I was doing my pre-doctoral training down in Houston, there was a doctor who stuck his head into the elevator but not his legs and the sensors didn't go off and he was decapitated," she says. "Elevators can be dangerous and deadly. But so can vacuum cleaners. There are freak accidents everywhere."

What's important to remember, she says, is the difference between possibility and probability. The chance of a freak accident causing an elevator to malfunction or the chance of being attacked by a fire-wielding assailant are very small, of course, Lombardo said.

According to the New York Post, many New York office workers are already shunning elevators due to the accident. Will this week's tragedies have a bigger effect on those with elevator phobias?

"I will absolutely be getting more calls," says Lombardo. "For them, it's like, 'See? It really can happen. I'm justified in having this fear.'"

Murphy says that's certainly how she felt after reading this week's news.

"I got a vision in my mind about what kind of elevator it was," she says. "And could picture one of those old buildings in New York where the elevators have gold doors and they just look like such a barrier. That once you're in them you can never get out. And I just thought, 'Where's the stairs, man?'"