Keeping Your Guard Up When Stuff Goes Down

Walking into a box, having the doors close behind you and traveling sometimes hundreds of feet or more suspended by cables, can invoke feelings of intense fear and anxiety.

Add to that the possibility of the elevator stopping during mid-lift or going dark inside, or having to share your ride with people who appear to have malice written all over their faces.

All these scenarios are very real possibilities and as such, disrupt the psyches of many individuals having to ride these tall-building transporters.

With concerns that range from natural disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes or hurricanes, to mechanical failures like system disruptions or blackouts throughout the city, to unsavory characters using the confined space to rob or do harm to others, the fears many people have are not without justification.

In addition, the feeling of helplessness while confined within the cube-shaped structure can disrupt a person’s ability to stay sharp, think intelligently and make sensible decisions.

However, your time in one of these conveniences doesn’t have to be a tense and sweat-inducing 30 seconds or more of your daily routine.

With some knowledge of elevator emergency scenarios, coupled with some basic self-defense tactics and, more important, situational awareness training, you can walk into the sometimes cramped and stuffy elevator with confidence and the mindset that you can handle nearly anything that may come your way.


There isn’t one specific phobia attached to the fear of elevators. Instead it’s a combination of three phobias: claustrophobia, agoraphobia and acrophobia, which respectively, is the fear of closed spaces, the fear of an unsafe place with no way to escape it and the fear of heights, no matter how far off the ground the person truly is.

Each phobia alone can cause great distress for the sufferer. Add the three together and a person can go from fearful of the situation to a full-on panic attack.

Even with no other factors involved, such as mechanical issues or power outages, one or more of the aforementioned phobias can cause severe problems for the rider.

Many times, the panic is so extreme that the person will circumvent the elevator and use the stairway, no matter how many flights are needed to reach their destination.

There are numerous ways and methods to reduce and even eliminate a phobia. The first and most important is to properly identify what the phobia truly is. This may sound simple, yet many people claim one type of fear, when in actuality, it is an off-shoot of what they thought.

For example, many people avoid going to the doctor. But what exactly is the true fear? Is it the needle that he may use? Is it the worry of hearing bad news? Or is it something else entirely? Identifying the actual problem is the first step in solving it.

There are several directions of attacking your fear. Some people write down a list of goals to get past their fear and follow several steps until it’s achieved. Using elevators as an example, a person could first just watch the elevator open, let people out and close.

They would watch repeatedly until they felt comfortable enough to move to step two, which entails going inside. The sufferer of the phobia could walk inside and immediately walk out.

Repeating this will desensitize them to the closed-in feel and allow them to move to the final step of riding the elevator.

As the person feels at ease with the ride as a whole, they again repeat it until it no longer bothers them, and their fear is removed.

This method is useful for overcoming most fears and in the end, the fear of the confined space, inability to get out or of heights will no longer be such a severe problem.


Personal safety and protection directly related to an elevator can be divided into two major categories.

One, situational awareness, which involves a person being proactive before a physical conflict can occur, and personal self-defense, which is needed when a physical attack is initiated.

Keep in mind, when situational awareness is followed, the chances of a physical attack go down dramatically, so both areas are vitally important to learn.

You should never stand with your back to others while riding in an elevator. Always adjust your stance to see everyone riding with you. Photo by Michael D’Angona

Upon entering the elevator, scan the interior for occupants or, more specifically, those who look or feel odd or threatening to you. This could mean people who physically look out of place for the surrounding area or just too many people within, which in itself should be avoided. As cliché as it sounds, always trust your instincts.

Don’t try to rationalize with your brain that someone wouldn’t dare do anything harmful to you. When your sixth sense is triggered, listen to it promptly and get off on the very next floor.

Either carry a kubotan (a small steel or hard plastic stick used to apply an impact or pressure) or position your keys within your hand for use as a weapon if someone threatens you physically. Photo by Michael D’Angona
With your back to others, you can become a victim of theft or worse, with little or no warning. Photo by Michael D’Angona

If all initially appears safe in the elevator, that is no time to let down your guard. You should stand near the control panel with your back to the corner, if possible. Never give someone your back because sneak attacks from behind are one of the most common types of attacks in elevators.

Your body language is as important as reading the body language of those around you. You need to appear confident and alert and exude the feeling that you won’t be a victim if push comes to shove.

Attackers in an elevator are no different than bad guys on the street. They prey on the helpless, injured or easy targets. Make sure you don’t fall into any of these categories. In addition, you should keep a balance between appearing too casual and relaxed, and on the other end of the spectrum, paranoid and restless as you wait to arrive at your floor.

An elevator’s confined space can be used against an attacker. Elbow and weapon strikes hit harder as the walls provide a solid stopping point for the assailant. Photo by Michael D’Angona
Short elbow strikes in quick repetition can surprise and subdue an attacker until the elevator car reaches the next floor. Photo by Michael D’Angona

Keep your personal belongings hidden or secured close to you as much as possible, which makes pickpocketing or grab-and-run a lot more difficult. Remember, your job is to make things tough on those intent on committing a crime against you.


Sometimes all the awareness in the world won’t help if someone is truly intent on doing you harm. In this case, self-defense is a must.

If at all possible, when the attacker is closing in (which will take only a second or less in the confined space), hit as many buttons on the control panel as possible. The elevator will then stop at the closest floor.

Why all buttons? Because under stress and panic, your senses will be overwhelmed and figuring out which floor you are nearest won’t be very clear or easy to deduce. Press many, and the odds will be in your favor.


Next, if you have a weapon, or a makeshift weapon, use it. This could be your keys, an umbrella (the pointed tip, if it has one, works wonders), or a pocketknife of any type or size. Focus your offensive weapon attack towards your aggressor’s vital areas.

These are their eyes, throat, groin, ears and neck area. Repeated stabs, even with seemingly blunt keys, can be highly effective as they direct your energy into a precise point on their body creating intense pain on their body’s pressure points.

If using a knife, make your movements small (to avoid them catching your arm), quick, and in a combination of stabs and slashes. This barrage of unpredictable movements will keep them off balance and possibly take them down and out of the fight quickly.

Unlike what you see in the movies, climbing up or down an elevator shaft is not easy, safe or practical for escape.

If you are weaponless, your fighting style should be virtually the same. Attack their vital areas with a single knuckle or gouge their eyes with your fingertips, or chop their throat with your hand to affect their air intake.

Again, as if you were using a weapon, a non-stop flurry of hand strikes, low kicks, and knee and elbow attacks will be what you need to defend yourself until you hear the ding of the elevator reaching a floor for you to get to safety.

Many people feel that the confined space gives the advantage to the attacker, but this isn’t entirely true. Using close-quarter techniques, the advantage at times sides with the intended victim.


Being inside an elevator during a natural disaster is often avoidable and those signs that state “in an emergency, use the stairs” are not there for show…they are meant to be followed.

But everything doesn’t always go according to plan and sometimes, through no fault of your own, you may find yourself trapped in an elevator during an earthquake, fire or other type of emergency. The question obviously is, What do you do if this happens?

If you’re stuck in an elevator and it has no emergency phone inside, you may be able to get a signal on your cellphone and be able

In most elevators that are located in an earthquake zone, there is an earthquake detector sensor that once triggered will take the elevator to the next available floor and open the doors. If, however, the building and the elevator and/or the elevator shaft are damaged, this won’t be a viable option.

Instead, push the call (emergency) button and wait. Help may not come instantly or for a while, but if you are uninjured and don’t panic, you should stay put.

Trying to pry open the doors and escape your containment box might be your first instinct, but without knowledge of the damage outside, you may be leaving the frying pan and jumping into the fire.

Many times a person out to do you harm jumps into an elevator at the last possible instant, preventing you from getting off or calling for help.

And speaking of fire. An elevator shaft can be a direct line for smoke moving upward from the lower levels, and if you are in an elevator during a fire, you need to act fast. Bear in mind that most elevators have a fire-safety mode — not unlike an earthquake mode.

If smoke is detected, the elevator should take the passengers to the ground floor. If smoke is at the ground floor, then the elevator will automatically find an alternate floor and release the doors allowing passengers to escape.

However, damage to a building caused by an earthquake or other disaster may nullify the safeguards, and your actions to ensure personal safety must be employed. Cover your mouth and nose with a cloth to slow down smoke inhalation and get low to the ground until help arrives.

Every second and minute count when it comes to smoke. Press the emergency button and try the emergency phone if one is available. Again, prying open the doors may only cause more smoke to enter or create physical hazards that could add more problems to your current situation.


Technology, in general, has come a long way and the elevator is no exception. If a power outage occurs, modern elevators will most likely convert to battery backup (not unlike those that keep your computer running when the power fails, just much bigger) and let you off at the next available floor.

The “walls are closing in” feeling can mentally break you down if you let it. Instead, stay positive and work on a solution instead of worrying endlessly.
Nearly half of all elevator deaths are suffered by professionals working on elevator repairs or construction.
Panic can overcome someone with claustrophobia, especially when the elevator stops between floors.
Pushing the alarm button should be your first action if you are stuck in an elevator.

For those that don’t have this remarkable safety enhancement, they will at least keep the lights on, all buttons illuminated and keep the emergency phone operating.

The biggest fears for people stuck in modern elevators during a power failure come from the individuals themselves as panic, negative thoughts and claustrophobia set in.

It’s imperative that if power fails, you stay as calm as possible, reiterating to yourself and others that you will have plenty of air (it’s not airtight, as explained earlier), you won’t drop to the basement and be killed, and trust that help will be there soon or the power will soon be restored.

An obvious but often overlooked solution if you feel that the elevator is stuck due to a power issue is to press the door-open button. Many times, the doors will open, but be sure to use caution, for the elevator and the landing may not be properly aligned.


The convenience and speed that an elevator provides come with a price, and that is you having to deal with a plethora of issues that may arise as you travel up and down a tall building.

It’s up to you to minimize the risk as you ride by knowing what to do when perhaps a violent storm hits, lights go on and off, or suspicious, out-of-place people follow you in.

Do your research long before you push that up button, and if you still don’t feel comfortable after that, take the stairs.


Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, was credited with designing the first elevator well over 2,000 years ago.

Elevators, Hardly a Modern Convenience

Yes, the modern elevator has enabled man to expand upward exponentially since the late 19th century, but its history and usefulness have been around for over 2,000 years and perhaps even longer.

Archimedes, an all-around genius of his time, invented the first elevator around 235 BC. Using the properties of pulleys and winches, he developed elevators that could be lifted upward under human and animal power.

The Romans then adapted Archimedes’ invention and added it to the world-famous Colosseum in Rome, evident by shafts found at the ancient site.

Finally, style was all the rage in the late 1800s, as elevators were once called movable rooms, and what better to be put into rooms? How about furniture, chandeliers, decorative carpeting and ornamental rugs.

The process of moving one or two floors upward was a classy undertaking as the occupants would actually sit down, relax and enjoy the ride.


Elevators are Much Safer Than You Think

Even though thousands of people have anxiety concerning every aspect of an elevator, the truth is that they are, by far, extremely safe. Sustaining an injury or dying while riding one is extremely rare.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 30 fatal elevator accidents every year, which includes elevators and escalators, with only about half of them being passengers. The other half are workers who fell down the shaft or got caught in moving parts.

Injuries from elevators include people getting caught between the doors as they close and losing their balance as the elevator lifts or descends.

On average, there are about 900,000 elevators operating in the United States today, with 325 million rides every day. Interestingly enough, many people fear elevators and take the stairs, but stair-related deaths average a staggering 12,000 per year.


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the December, 2019 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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