Researchers at Ryerson University are using handcuffs, blankets, and coffin-like boxes to test the effectiveness of cognitive behavioural therapy to reduce claustrophobia.

Twenty-year-old Utina Colla is one of the volunteer participants.

“I would get triggered and I would have panic attacks. I would have passed out,” Colla said.

As part of the study, she allowed herself to be zipped up in a sleeping bag while wearing a face mask and handcuffs.

And as a final step, Colla was ready to try five minutes in a black rectangular box.

“It was so anxiety-provoking,” She recalls. “I remember coming out of it and just being in a ball of panic.”

But during her three-and-a-half hour long session with PhD student and researcher Kirstyn Krause, Colla had several opportunities to test her ability to stay in the box.

“You know progressively, it’s gotten better, which is something that I was hoping for.”

Krause’s research focuses on exposure therapy, which is a form of cognitive behavioural therapy. It has been used for decades to treat phobias like fear of heights (acrophobia) or fear of water (hydrophobia), and Krause is hoping to use these experiences to measure the effectiveness of different claustrophobia treatments.

“The purpose of that is to really see how far that person can push themselves to face their fear,”said Krause.

They’ve tested some 60 volunteer participants, but Krause is hoping to get about 30 more.

Colla says the study has already made an impact on her life.

“It might not sound like a big thing for some people but I went to see a movie in a theatre recently, which was something I haven't been able to do in a while,” she said.

Colla said that the experiences she went through as part of the have given her the courage to try more things she used to fear.