Do you panic at the sight of a looming bridge? You might feel anxious just looking up at it or driving anywhere along its span. Even people who don’t normally have a bridge phobia, can feel nervous if they get stuck in traffic on a long or exceptionally high bridge.
Ann is a 35-year-old mother of two young girls who works from her home in Biloxi, Mississippi. One morning, as she was getting her daughters ready for school, she got a call with news that her father had been admitted to Tulane hospital. He had suffered a massive heart attack and required emergency bypass surgery. Ann wrestled with what she should do. She called her husband, Steve, feeling frantic. She knew he would help her calm down. Steve, listened to the alarm in her voice and offered to drive her from Biloxi to New Orleans. There was only one problem,
“I won’t be able to get out of here until noon. I’m the only one at the desk today.” said Steve.
“I can’t wait that long. What if something happens to daddy during the surgery?” The fear rose in her voice again. Ann was already imagining the worst.
“Okay, why don’t you just forget school for the girls today and take off right now to New Orleans? I’ll clear out of here as fast as I can and meet up with you at the hospital.”
Ann quickly agreed with the plan and set her GPS for Tulane. She would be there in less than 90 minutes. As she drove, the images of her father lying in a bed alone and gasping for breath raced through her head. She suddenly snapped at the girls when they screamed at play in the back seat.
Then it happened. Lake Pontchartrain, an almost 24-mile-long bridge completely over water. Ann saw it coming. She had driven over it many times before without a problem. This time it was different. She looked down at the water, and the miles of bridge ahead of her and felt her heart racing. She could barely catch her breath. Her hands were gripping the steering-wheel so tightly, her fingers looked white as she stared down at them. She felt like something bad was about to happen. She had visions of the bridge collapsing beneath her. She would be trapped in the car as it submerged in the water, helpless to get her girls out to safety. All this happened in a matter of seconds. As she approached the middle of the bridge. She began to feel dizzy.
What should Ann do? Are there tips she can use for beating her fear?
1. Do not avoid bridges. Ann may be scared of plunging into the water, but avoiding this bridge today will only make it more likely that her fear will grow and limit her freedom in the future. This one may seem obvious, but it’s hard to do.
2. Recognize the symptoms of panic.
Ann’s is feeling classic panic: racing heartbeat, palpitations, shortness of breath, tension, dizziness, fear of impending doom or death. Remember that these are symptoms of anxiety, just like a sneeze and cough are symptoms of a cold. Ann is not going to die. She is having strong sensations, which feel overwhelming, but they won’t cause the bridge or her body to suddenly collapse.
Do we have any clues about why it might be happening today for the first time?
3. Focus on the road.
Ann should resist the urge to stare below her at the water . She can do this effectively by watching the cars ahead of her and staying focused on what’s coming up on the road instead of entertaining the mental images of falling into the water.
4. Breathe slowly and focus on exhaling.
If Ann can concentrate on slowing her breath and on expelling the air from her lungs while relaxing her chest muscles, this maneuver can “trick” her brain into a greater feeling of relaxation because we tend to exhale when we are feeling relieved. Think about anytime you’ve finished doing something that was difficult or painful. You probably breathed a long sigh of relief, “Ahhh…(exhale) I’m glad that final exam is over.”
5. Stay in touch with soothing sensations.
Ann could turn on the radio and listen to something entertaining or calming. She could purposely relax her fingers and use them to feel the hard surface of the steering wheel. She could take advantage of her most primitive sense–smell, to bring her back to the present moment. She might identify specific scents or odors in the car. Ann might calm herself by engaging her vision to look at the people in the car ahead of her, play a game of checking license tags or start a contest with the girls to see who might find the first white car. She could grab some gum or a breath mint to soothe her taste buds. While she is doing these things, Ann will naturally be distracted from the scary images in her mind.
6. Think about the purpose for crossing the bridge.
Instead of fueling the fire of fear, Ann could think about where she is going. Her goal is to be available for her father as he waits alone in his hospital bed for the comfort Ann can provide. She can speak to her father in her mind, “Dad I’m almost there. I’ll be there to hold your hand soon. Just a few more minutes over this bridge and I’ll be looking into your eyes and telling you I’m here for you. That I love you.”
7. Commit to your purpose.
Ann can say, “I’m going to see my dad no matter what it takes.” She can accept whatever discomfort she’s feeling because her goal is the most important thing. Providing support for her dad and staying in control of her vehicle is more important than the false images racing through her mind or the temporary discomfort her anxiety is producing.
While Ann is driving, her phone rings. She accepts the call on speaker. “Hi, honey, I got Jim to cover for me. I’m already on my way.” Steve phone call provides us with a freebie tip.
Free tip #8.
Allow a supportive person to help you get through the ride.
Sometimes talking to someone who can accept your fear and talk you through it makes all the difference. Steve could hear the nervousness as Ann described her sensations. He offered to stay on the line until she got past the bridge. Then he asked what he should bring with him in case they decided to stay overnight. He asked about some silly things and the girls laughed. Hearing the laughter helped Ann feel lighter. By the time he had packed their things, Ann was past the bridge and ready to find the hospital.
Tell us about your scary bridge stories. Have you used some helpful trick to get over a particularly challenging bridge?