small room in winter as woman drinks hot beverage on a bed in a tiny house

What’s it like to have your world confined to a small space?

I think most of us know, having lived through the past year.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I read the book Solitary, by Albert Woodfox, out of curiosity as to whether there were any lessons to be learned in looking at the pandemic experience through the lens of the solitary confinement experience.

Obviously, the solitary confinement experience is equivalent to torture, whereas living through a pandemic could be, depending on your circumstances, merely stressful. So these are two very different things.

Still, today I want to write on the psychological effects of living in a small space. I would like to look at this from three diverse perspectives: (1) a tiny prison cell, (2) a tiny house, and (3) a bedroom that you don’t leave as often as you used to. Then I’d like to compare these three different situations.

The Psychological Effects of Living in a Small Space in Prison

Closed Cell Restricted, or CCR, is the name of one of the solitary confinement blocks where Albert Woodfox spent a large portion of his life. He was first put in solitary confinement after a white man was murdered, and the prison authorities were preparing to falsely accuse him of the crime. They wanted to frame him because he was a Black Panther activist who was striving for more humane treatment for all prisoners. But in the eyes of the authorities, of course, he was a troublemaker for attempting to organize other prisoners and encouraging them to take action.

Woodfox was placed in solitary confinement and remained in various solitary confinement cells for over 40 years.

It took only a month for the severe psychological effects of living in a small space to reveal themselves:

“After about a month in CCR I was sitting on my bunk when I started sweating, and the walls of my cell started to move toward me at the same time. My clothes tightened around my body. I took off my shirt and pants but still felt like I was being squeezed, strangled. The ceiling was pressing down on me. It was hard to breathe, hard to think, hard to see. I forced myself to stand. I took a few steps, trying not to fall. At the end of my cell I turned and walked back to the cell door. I turned and continued, pacing back and forth for several minutes, maybe an hour. Eventually I was so tired I lay on the bunk and fell asleep. After the first couple of times this happened I started recognizing when it was coming on; my clothes tightened and I started to sweat. The atmosphere pressed down on me. Sometimes it lasted five or ten minutes, other times it lasted for hours. The only thing that helped was to pace back and forth. Usually it didn’t end until I was so exhausted from walking back and forth that I could lie down. I continued having episodes like this one, which I later learned was claustrophobia, the whole time I was in prison. For about three years I slept sitting up, propped up against the wall, believing it helped prevent claustrophobic attacks. It seemed to lesson them but they never stopped.”

Woodfox goes on to describe experiencing similar symptoms throughout his time in prison, even—perhaps surprisingly, or perhaps not—after he was released from prison and was living in a regular house that he could leave at any time.

He did not experience these severe claustrophobic symptoms when he was in the regular prison population. It was only when he was locked down in a 6 by 9 foot cell for 23 hours a day that he began experiencing the horrors of claustrophobia.

It sounds just awful. I can’t imagine. (Actually, I can, in a very small way. . . . I used to have claustrophobic nightmares regularly. I suppose I could psychoanalyze myself to try to figure out why. But, instead, why don’t I end this tangent for now. . . .) I give Woodfox so much credit for learning how to manage his symptoms. He found techniques that worked, and he used them. And he did this all on his own, without the benefit of help from a psychologist or other professional.

The penalty for not learning to manage his claustrophobic symptoms, he knew, was as harsh as can be:

“Every morning in CCR I woke up with the same thought: Will this be the day? Will this be the day I lose my sanity and discipline? Will I start screaming and never stop? Will I curl up into a ball and become a baby, which was an early sign of going insane? Every day I pushed insanity away. Every day I had to find that strength. I had to find within me the will and determination not to break.”

Inhumane treatment forced him to either fight to stay sane, or lose his sanity. That was his choice: quite literally.

The Psychological Effects of Living in a Small Space That You’ve Chosen for Yourself

Let’s turn to a happy story. Things are completely different when you live in a small space because you have chosen to go minimalist. Things are completely different, also, when you have the freedom to leave your small space anytime you want. . . . However, during the pandemic, those who chose minimalism for their housing are perhaps in a tougher situation than others, given that it’s now dangerous to leave home. But let’s look at one person’s minimalist experience.

A friend of mine lives in a tiny house in Maryland. It’s one of those adorable tiny houses that you’ve heard about. (It looks somewhat similar to this. This is not, that I know of, the company that made her house. I’m just giving an example of what her tiny house sort of looks like, outside and inside.) I’ve been inside of it, and the space is adorable and lovely.

I asked her how it feels to live in a tiny house, and here is what she said:

“The thing about living in a tiny space is . . . to cultivate the enormity of inner space. Spacious thoughts.”

I love this! A small space encourages spacious thoughts. Beautiful.

Next, I asked, does the tiny house ever feel too small?

“There are times when I feel ‘cramped.’ When that happens, I know it’s time to address the amount of material goods I possess. Right now, for instance, I am giving myself a deadline for reading books that have been in my library . . . unread. I also removed the built-in sofa . . . because I need more room to do yoga and exercise than a big couch for lounging. Of course, this spells doom for many of the books aforementioned . . . because of the lack of a comfortable reading space. Sigh.”

Ah, yes. I can relate! I’ll get to how I can relate in a second. But, basically, she’s saying that because her space is small, she must make severe choices. Someone in a bigger space could have a reading nook and an exercise space, but she has to choose between these options.

Finally, I asked, does the tiny house ever feel perfectly sized and cozy?

“I often feel that the space is perfect for hygge. [This Danish word means ‘coziness and contentment.’] It’s beautiful and snug and I am filled with a sense of contentment and gratitude. Everything I need and love . . . tucked in a close ‘nest.'”

I love this so much. She’s wrapped in close with all of her favorite things, having been forced to jettison all of her not-favorite things. And there’s a gratitude of being alive that emerges when it’s just you in a small space, unencumbered by unnecessary accoutrements.

The Psychological Effects of Living in a Small Space That’s Necessary Because of Circumstances

During the pandemic, and my ongoing concussion recovery, my own living situation got smaller. I used to have two rooms to myself. Last year, I rented out one of them. I now have three tenants in my house, instead of two. And I now have one room, instead of two. I also don’t go out much, both because of the pandemic and because of my concussion (which has magically turned into, yay, post-concussion syndrome).

To make a long story short—I moved into my office. My bed and other bedroom furniture are nonstrategically scattered about the house. I threw out or donated almost everything in my office closet to make room for my clothes. And I’ve been alternating between sleeping on couch cushions and sleeping on a yoga mat, trying to decide which is more comfortable. For months the yoga mat won out, even though it wasn’t too comfortable, but now I’m back to the cushions. But the thing about the cushions is, every morning I have to partially dismantle it, so there’s space to walk between my computer and the door without bouncing over the cushions every time, which is not just annoying, but also tending to set off my concussion symptoms. Even so, the walkway space I’m able to create contains two cords, which I’m afraid I might trip over every time I move around my room. And I’m in concordance with my friend in lamenting that I don’t have an exercise space, unless I dismantle my “bed,” and even if I did this, there still wouldn’t be enough room to do some of the more outstretched yoga poses.

I also venture into the rest of my house less often, because of all of the extra furniture lying around haphazardly, which makes it less homey, and also because of the pandemic, which makes other people feel unsafe, even though my housemates are awesome and careful.

But: I love my little bedroom slash home office! I love holing up there to write and read and meditate and talk and text with friends. I love that it’s all mine. I love that it has a gazillion books in it, piled up everywhere. I love my new wall decorations. I love my TV that I only watched for 5 minutes but never watched again because it gave me concussion symptoms. I love my “bed” that doubles as a reading nook, and I love my ottoman that I use as a chair (the chair that goes with it is making friends with spiders in the living room).

Also: I love that I have the freedom to leave my bedroom whenever I want to.

What’s the Wisdom?

Here’s my favorite part! What wisdom can we glean from these stories about the psychological effects of living in a small space?

1. Choice and agency is everything.

A small space can feel like hygge or torture, depending on whether you chose the environment, or whether it was chosen for you. And depending on whether or not you can choose to leave at any time.

2. A small space can foster an expansive mind.

A small space encourages the expansion of the mind, since there’s less in the exterior to distract the mind and thus more opportunity to engage the mind. Woodfox used the power of his mind to cultivate mental toughness and develop strategies to overcome claustrophobia. My friend who lives in a tiny house is able to cultivate “spacious thoughts” (I love this phrase!).

3. When the space is small, you have to make hard choices.

This can be a good thing, in helping you realize what’s truly important in life. Woodfox had to make the daily horrific choice of sanity over insanity; but he took pride in his ability to see his options clearly and make the right choice. My friend and I are having to choose what things we can keep and what must go; in the process, we are learning what’s most important to us.

4. Two forms of strength emerge as supremely necessary in a small space: mind and body.

In all three of the examples, people grappled with how to enhance both the mind and the body in a small space. In all three examples, people used creativity to make this possible.

Are you living in a small space? Tell us about it in the comments!

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