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Just don't stand so close to me

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  • Ian Pitchford
    September 02, 2005 Just don t stand so close to me by David Mattin Some people have a psychological need to keep their distance at all times, even from those
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 3, 2005
      September 02, 2005

      Just don't stand so close to me
      by David Mattin

      Some people have a psychological need to keep their distance at
      all times, even from those who are closest to them. One doctor
      has identified the condition as personal space phobia
      IT WAS two months after she was the victim of a violent physical
      assault that Laura first started to notice strange feelings
      towards her children. While previously she had enjoyed cuddling
      the four of them — especially the youngest, a five- year-old boy
      — now the thought of physical contact was unbearable.

      “Whenever my son approached, I was immediately anxious and on
      the defensive,” she recalls. “It was as if I wanted to lash out
      and run a mile from him. I couldn’t understand why.”

      Laura, a single mother who was then 38, realised too that she
      could no longer bear to be physically close to anyone, from
      strangers to her parents. Though the injuries that had initially
      kept her housebound were improving, she locked herself in her
      home. Social invitations went unanswered, a return to work was
      out of the question — she eventually retired on ill-health
      grounds — and she ended her relationship with her partner.

      One morning she found herself sobbing uncontrollably because the
      postman had knocked on the door. “The idea of getting close
      enough to take the parcel from him was terrifying. My
      personality had been transformed. On the rare occasions when I
      had to leave the house I’d have panic attacks so severe that I
      was being sick. I thought I was going mad.”

      Through her GP, Laura ended up in the office of Dr Peter Kirby,
      a clinical psychologist. It was a fortunate referral. Dr Kirby
      told Laura that he had identified a condition that he called
      personal space phobia (PSP): an intense, irrational fear of
      physical closeness to, or contact with, others. The condition,
      he said, occurred in severe cases of post-traumatic stress
      disorder (PTSD) and she was a sufferer. Five years on, Dr Kirby,
      who runs a private practice in Staffordshire, says that for some
      Britons his discovery is more relevant now than ever.

      “I would expect many of those who were witness to the London
      bombings — those trapped underground or badly injured — to be
      suffering from PSP. Fundamental to onset is a traumatic
      experience in which the victim becomes convinced that death is
      imminent. How often in the news reports have we heard people
      say: ‘I thought I was going to die’. ”

      Psychologists have long known that each individual carries
      around a “personal space”, or a set of rules concerning physical
      closeness to others, which varies depending on circumstances.
      While working with sufferers of PTSD, Dr Kirby began to think
      that the established description of that condition did not
      account for some of the seemingly bizarre symptoms that a few of
      his patients described: of being unable to bear physical
      closeness, or the thought of it, even with family members. “I’ve
      had mothers who have left their children to live alone. One wife
      insisted on living on a separate floor of the house from her

      In every case, Dr Kirby realised, victims had suffered a trauma
      in which they believed that they were going to die. “It’s as if
      they had unconsciously said to themselves: ‘I’m certain to die,
      but if I somehow get out of this I’ll avoid harm by never
      letting anyone in my space again’.”

      Many PTSD patients will not develop the phobia, he says. But in
      those who do, even the smallest loss of control over personal
      space can trigger the instinctive “fight or flight” response to
      a perceived danger, causing the sufferer to become anxious or
      aggressive. Walking down a busy street, standing in a queue,
      even eating around a table: all become unbearable.
      Antidepressive medication can dampen the symptoms but not remove
      them entirely. Dr Kirby has identified about 40 cases of

      PSP among the trauma victims he has seen, but believes there may
      be thousands of undiagnosed cases in the UK.

      When Laura heard about PSP it was, she says, “like a light going
      on”. During the vicious physical attack that she suffered, she
      had thought death was a certainty. Now, just as Dr Kirby had
      said, she was filling her life with strategies to avoid physical
      closeness: “In the evening I’d paint my nails over and over so
      I’d have an excuse not to touch my children. The truth was, it
      was hard enough just knowing that they were in the house. I felt
      so unnatural, and tortured myself over failing as a mother.

      “My oldest, a 16-year-old, could understand my condition but my
      smallest boy couldn’t. There were times when I felt so guilty.
      I’d worry that my youngest son would grow up unable to show
      affection to anyone. I didn’t feel that I could talk about it,
      not even to my parents. Feelings like that are taboo. How can
      you tell someone: ‘I can’t bear to touch my child’? I shed a lot
      of tears; that was all I could do.”

      Robert Sommer, a psychology professor at the University of
      California, Davis, is one of the world’s leading experts on
      personal space. He believes that current thinking on its origins
      supports the idea that personal space and perceived danger are
      closely linked: “It seems likely that personal space served an
      evolutionary function,” he says. “People have always faced
      physical threat from others: having a personal space helps to
      keep you safe from your enemies.”

      While he doesn’t lend support to Dr Kirby’s identification of
      PSP, Professor Sommer says that an event such as the London
      bombs will have consequences for the personal space of everyone
      in the city. “After this kind of event, people will become more
      guarded about their space. They will distance themselves from
      strangers, especially those they perceive to be a threat. So
      you’ll get people on the Tube changing carriages to avoid being
      near those with rucksacks, because of an instinctive need to
      protect personal space.”

      Dr Kirby continues to work towards greater recognition of the
      condition, and says more research is needed. Through the
      treatment for PSP — cognitive behavioural therapy — sufferers
      are encouraged to confront their fears of closeness and
      gradually to reintroduce themselves to a normal lifestyle. Five
      years after her attack, Laura says that she has improved: “I can
      go out with friends, but they know I’ll have to sit with my back
      to the wall and that I must be able to see the door. I can
      cuddle my youngest.

      “It’s taken great self-determination. But I still couldn’t
      consider a relationship with a partner, and it’s frightening to
      think I may never have that again. I just hope that, one day,
      the situation changes.”

      # For more information, write to: Dr Peter Kirby, Cornwall
      House, Sandy Lane, Newcastle, Staffordshire, ST5 0LZ.


      Ian Pitchford PhD CBiol MIBiol
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