When I do drive, I usually don’t drive far and I rarely drive alone. Most of my driving is uneventful unless I drive over a big bridge. Then I have an anxiety attack because I suffer from gephyrophobia, the medical term for a phobia of bridges,
I am total freaked out by curving, highly arching, long spanning monstrosities. When there is no way out and cross I must, I begin to hyperventilate. As tunnel vision sets in I begin to control my breathing so I don’t pass out and careen over the side, plummeting to my death. Despite a long line of frustrated drivers at my back door, I cross the bridge slowly.
I don’t know why I’m terrified of large bridges. I’ve never been involved in an accident on one nor have I ever witnessed an accident on one. I can’t even remember when it began. I don’t remember reacting this way in my twenties and thirties. It may have something to do with menopause and all its mystery. Whatever the reason, such a phobia baffles even the medical experts.
Fortunately, for phobics like myself, if you find yourself facing the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York, you can call the Thruway Authority and they will have someone come out and drive you over the bridge. The bridge over Chesapeake Bay and Michigan’s Mackinac Bridge also have similar services.
This survival instinct takes place in the amygdala deep within the brain. It’s part of the limbic system. The purpose of this system is to manage emotional reactions like fear. When a person panics the frontal lobe, which controls rationale, wrestles for control with the amygdala. In the case of phobias, the amygdala wins the match. When the amygdala kicks into high gear trying to protect us, it triggers the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
The best advice for techniques to manage fear can be found with the U.S. Navy Seals. Their job requires them to engage in life threatening situations and complete their missions competently and professionally. How do they do it? They use a four step process:
- Have a focal point: When the amygdala is going bananas, focus on something positive as a means to break through the chaos of the fight or flight reaction.
- Visualization: Conduct mental rehearsals on a regular basis visualizing yourself engaged in whatever is your phobia and a positive outcome.
- Talk to yourself: When your brain is screaming insanities, verbalize calming, positive logic.
- Breathe: Perform a long inhale followed by a long exhale. Deliberate breathing relaxes the body and oxygenates the brain which helps regain cognitive control.
These are simple, effective techniques that help overcome fear and anxiety. Some of these I instinctively already performed. However, I find it comforting that if these methods work for Navy Seals who handle life and death situations, surely I should be able to tackle and conquer crossing the Mississippi River bridge next time I head East to visit my family.