The fear of bridges

4 Ways to Face Fears and Overcome Phobias

Halloween is a time when we have fun with the feeling of being afraid, so I thought I’d write about our fears, phobias, anxieties — things that shorten our breath, quicken our heartbeats, and sometimes outright disable us.

Some of us shut our eyes and hold our breath as we ride the elevator to the 10th floor of an office building, while others pray the Rosary inside that coffin-like enclosure when getting an MRI. I am afraid of heights — in particular driving over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It doesn’t look all that menacing, but the structure spans more than 4.3 miles and is 200 feet high in places.

I’m obviously not alone with my jitters. Two years ago, Inside Edition did a story on it, calling it quite possibly the scariest bridge in the world. It was also on Travel + Leisure’s list of the 10 scariest bridges in the world — the only other two American bridges being the Mackinac Straits Bridge between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace, Michigan, and the Royal Gorge Bridge in Cañon City, Colorado.

The Bay Bridge connects Maryland’s eastern and western shores (Annapolis is on the western shore), so kids’ sporting events on the eastern shore present a real problem for a mom with gephyrophobia (fear of crossing bridges — yes, there’s a word for us!). Usually, I make my husband take off work to drive Katherine or David across the bridge. But the other night he was out of town, so I was forced to face my fear, which is usually the way phobias are addressed.

My strategy was to follow these four steps, which, once I was on the other side of the bridge, I realized actually apply to everything we don’t want to do, and to living with depression in general.

1. Focus on the Yellow Lines (or What’s Right in Front of You)

This is true of so many things — if we can keep our view on just what is in front of us, instead of the really high span a mile ahead, we have a better shot at staying calm.

Ironically, when I swam UNDER the bridge — where many people freak out because, in some places, you’re swimming in 174-foot deep water — someone told me to count the concrete structures along the way and never try to gauge how far it is to the other side.

It was sage advice. Whenever I looked up and tried to figure out how far it was to the shore, my breath became labored and swimming became much more difficult. But if I concentrated on counting my strokes and the structures, I made better time, and I forgot that I was a mile away from land on each side.

When I’m driving over the bridge, I do much better when I kept my gaze down at the yellow lines.

This is also true if you are in the midst of a depressive episode. In that case, the yellow lines are 15-minutes segments of time, and I tell people to take it 15 minutes at a time, no more.

2. Keep Your Cheerleaders Nearby

Conquering your fear is much easier when you have cheerleaders to accompany you. This is true when you challenge yourself in any regard, from running a 5K to giving a talk at an event.

I remember the time when a friend couldn’t get into a skyscraper elevator in New York City until my sister offered to ride up with her.

“Mom, this is not that big a deal,” my son reminded me as we paid the $4 toll to get across the bridge.

Of course, the cheerleaders can also distract you, which is a plus; on the way back, my kids were fighting over a Chick-Fil-A milkshake, grabbing it out of each other’s hands just as we reached the highest part of the bridge. My attention turned from the little yellow lines to screaming, “Stop it already! Can’t you see Mom’s not having fun?!”

3. Watch Your Breath

In addition to counting the yellow lines, I practiced a modified Pranayama, the first breathing exercise of Bikram yoga, while crossing the bridge. Obviously, my hands were on the steering wheel and I couldn’t throw my head back, but I inhaled to a count of six breathing in through my nose, and then exhaled to a count of six breathing through out my mouth.

When you breathe deeply, you stimulate your vagus nerve, which extends from your medulla oblongata, located in the brain stem, to the stomach. This long nerve links your central nervous system and your peripheral nervous system. It is often considered a bridge between between our conscious minds (“I am driving across a really high bridge”) and subconscious minds (“I’ll never be able to overcome my fears”).

By stimulating the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system, we release anti-stress enzymes and hormones, such as acetylcholine, prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin.

The first thing that happens when we panic is that our breath grows shallow and the loss of oxygen sends an alarm throughout our body that we are in harm’s way, which further paralyzes our thoughts and our biological systems. Stopping this reaction as it is happening is much more difficult than keeping it from happening to begin with, so it’s best to slow your breath from the beginning when you’re in a fearful situation, and make sure you keep it at a deliberate, measured pace until you’re on dry land or out of the elevator.

4. Apply Some Humor

I was very glad that a friend asked me to watch Bob Newhart’s video Stop It last week before I attempted the bridge drive. I apologize in advance if anyone finds the video offensive, but for those of us who have endured some really bad therapy sessions and have fears that make absolutely no sense, it is welcome comic relief.

A woman who comes to see Newhart’s character, Dr. Robert Hartley, PhD, for therapy is afraid she is going to be buried alive in a box, and Bob simply says, “STOP IT!”

She goes on to say she has bad relationships with men, is bulimic (I realize this is sensitive, but I also had an eating disorder and I appreciated the humor), and a list of other things, and all he says is “STOP IT!”

At the highest point of the bridge, I did begin to panic a little and feared that I was going to have a bona fide panic attack.

“What if I can no longer control my foot and I accidentally hit the accelerator, smashing us into this truck in front of us, and we go over the side,” I thought to myself. “Maybe I should open all the windows now so the kids and I can climb out, because the weight of the water will make it impossible for me to punch through the glass …” The ruminations were just beginning when I said to myself, “STOP IT!” and laughed, remembering the video. “This is insane. Just STOP IT!”

Join ProjectBeyondBlue.com, the new depression community.

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Crossing that bridge when you come to it is terrifying when you have a fear of bridges.

Known as gephyrophobia (pronounced jeff-i-ro-fo-bia), people with an intense fear of driving over a bridge — or for some, the mere thought or anticipation of it — brings on a panic attack. Their hearts race and palms sweat, and they may also have trouble breathing and feel light-headed.

If driving, their hands death-grip the steering wheel. They worry about losing control of the car and veering off the bridge, or of becoming so freaked out that they stop traffic with no shoulder of the road to pull into.

Gephyrophobes are “not worried about the bridge collapsing, they’re worried about themselves collapsing,” says Jean Ratner, a social worker who directs the Center for Travel Anxiety in Bethesda, Md. She says a bridge phobia may stem from a fear of heights, and what’s at the root of the problem is being scared of having a panic attack and not being able to manage it.

This anxiety disorder usually has a sudden onset and tends to strike extremely good drivers, suggests Ratner. It often catches a person by surprise because this was someone who previously had no trouble crossing bridges. Then one day, a panicky feeling occurs on a tall bridge, typically on the first half of it as the car is climbing up the arch.

Both the length and the height of the bridge can freak out sufferers, who may drive miles out of the way to find an alternative route or make excuses for their travel-related anxieties. A dread of bridges is more likely when the person is doing the driving, but may also occur as a passenger.

Although less common than a fear of flying, bridge phobia is treatable in 6 to 9 months, suggests Ratner. She starts with office-based sessions to develop relaxation strategies that target the symptoms of panic, such as a slower breathing pattern and looking straight ahead. Then these behavioral methods might be practiced in a car on local roads.

Next Ratner might accompany that person while they walk across a bridge. Very gradually, the person works up to walking halfway across alone.

As a person slowly builds up more courage, then Ratner will discuss driving over a small bridge in a car with her sitting in the front seat. Then they may attempt a bigger bridge together. The next session may find Ratner in the back seat, then eventually to her in a separate car trailing behind the fearful driver.

Some people may take a mild tranquilizer to help them get over their bridge jitters, or carry it in a purse or wallet in case of panic.

Of the phobias she treats, Ratner says this is a hard one. With a fear of flying, people realize they’re not piloting the plane. But with a fear of bridges, the driver is in charge and that person often feels an incredible sense of responsibility especially if other family members are depending on this individual to transport them safely.

Some bridges have drive-over services for the skittish. Nervous motorists can arrange to have someone else shuttle your car while you close your eyes or cower in the back seat. Some places charge for the servicewhile others do it for free.

If drive-over services helps people get where they want to go, Ratner says she’s very open them. But working with a therapist who treats phobias can be a bridge to getting over these fears for good.

Related:

  • That weird urge to jump off a bridge, explain
  • Some insomniacs may just be afraid of the dark
  • Spiders look bigger to arachnophobes

Bourne advocates jump-starting your exposure with coping measures, like bringing along a therapist or trusted friend, writing coping statements like “This will pass” and “These are just thoughts — not reality” on an index card and taping it to your dashboard, practicing deep abdominal breathing, and taking a break as needed. These tools are not meant to be used forever, though — just to get your toe in the water.

Practice

The more you practice, the sooner you’ll overcome your phobia. “If you’re willing to go out for an hour every day for five days a week, of course you’re going to move much faster through your hierarchy than if you just go out one or two days a week,” Bourne says. He advises patients to practice anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes at a time. “The client really determines the rate of recovery based on how much practice they put in.”

Don’t give up

You will experience setbacks. But it’s essential to get back to driving after 15 to 20 minutes of taking a break. “If you just go home, it reinforces the idea that you can’t do it,” Bourne says. Instead, if you hit a rough spot, use your coping strategies — breathing, breaking, coping mantras and so on — then try again.

Be patient with yourself

It may take time. Bourne has had patients take two months to overcome a driving phobia, and others take two years. Everyone is different.

Expect to feel anxiety

You’re supposed to feel anxiety when you’re exposing yourself to something that scares you, Bourne explains. “If you weren’t feeling anxiety, you wouldn’t be habituating to anything,” he says.

Get help

Therapists who are skilled in CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and treating OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) are well-trained to help patients tackle phobias. And while it can be challenging to find therapists who accept insurance, Medicare does cover therapy. There are also countless self-help books, like Bourne’s and others. And many communities have support groups for all kinds of phobias. With millions of Americans dealing with phobias, remember above all else that you are not alone — and you do not have to feel stuck any longer.

Heightened anxiety: How to overcome a fear of high places

by Mike James

It’s natural to feel a little nervous when you find yourself peering down at the ground from an unnatural height. But for some, the fear of high places is so extreme that panic and vertigo set in at the mere thought of being anywhere other than ground level. We’re not talking a fear of bungee jumping here….that is quite a rational fear!

There are varying degrees of fear when it comes to heights. Some reluctantly manage experiences at height (such as flying, or a trip on the London Eye) but may take medication to help get through the ordeal, and literally can’t wait until the experience is over. Others are crippled by fear and won’t even attempt three flights of stairs for fear of looking over the banister, and some think nothing of driving 50 miles out of the way to avoid going over a bridge.

A fear of heights is a curious and irrational fear, but it’s a very real and frightening experience for those who experience it. We’ve put together a brief guide of height-related anxiety – what it is, recognising the symptoms, how you can help someone in an acute state of panic, and most importantly what you can do to try and get over your fear of heights. Read on for some interesting facts and tips.

Height related phobias

There are a number of height related phobias. Here are the main ones:

  1. Acrophobia

One of the most common phobias in the world, acrophobia (from the Greek words ἄκρον, ákron, meaning peak, summit, edge and φόβος, phóbos, “fear”) is an extreme or irrational fear or phobia of heights. In the most extreme cases the person can only function at ground level.

  1. Aeroacrophobia

Aeroacrophobia is a fear of open high places, such as at the top of a mountain, in a hot air balloon, or even being on an airplane.

  1. Illyngophobia

Not to be confused with acrophobia, illyngophobia is a fear of spinning and dizziness. A person may not directly be fearful of heights, but fearful of getting dizzy due to the height.

  1. Climacophobia

This is an extreme fear of climbing or going down from a great height, especially stairs, slopes or ladders.

  1. Bathmophobia

This is an extreme fear that can occur by simply seeing or observing stairs or slopes. The person may not even have to climb the height, but would get scared just by seeing it.

The symptoms of height-related anxiety

Symptoms vary from person to person, but can include:

  • Trembling
  • Air hunger (gasping for breath)
  • Weeping
  • Screaming
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness and a spinning sensation (vertigo)
  • A general and irrational sense of panic
  • A temporary loss of some bodily functions (numbness)
  • Dropping to the knees, or clutching on to someone or something
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Chest pain
  • Fear of dying

What causes a fear of heights?

There are two main causes attributed to an irrational fear of heights.

  1. Traumatic – a fear has developed following a traumatic incident involving a fall from a height or witnessing someone else get hurt as a result of falling from a high place.
  2. Genetic – all of us are born with an innate fear of heights – it’s an evolutionary necessity to keep us away from danger and to protect our species from extinction. It is said children are born with only 2 fears – a fear of falling and a fear of loud noises.

How to help someone in an acute state of panic

When someone is in an acute state of panic, there is no point trying to convince the person that the fear is without merit. They won’t be able to process the information rationally. The best approach is to empathise with the individual, and provide reassurance that they aren’t in danger and that you will help them get back to ground level. Here are some useful tips:

  • Stay with the person
  • Don’t let lots of people fuss over the individual in crisis
  • Move the person to a quiet space way from the edge or to a place where the view to the ground is obscured
  • Speak to the person in short sentences
  • Don’t make assumptions about what the person needs
  • Be as predictable and calm as possible

How to alleviate the fear of heights

Therapy

Therapy can be extremely effective for phobias, including acrophobia. There are various types of therapy, and many look at reframing phobic thoughts. The most common approaches include:

  • Talking therapy (Counselling)
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Neuro-Linguistic programming (NLP)
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
  • Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)

Exposure

Immersion therapy works by gradually exposing the person to the thing they fear. It is thought fear can be lessened by gradually desensitising the individual to the situation they are afraid of.

Start by slowly exposing yourself/the person to heights, perhaps start with a first floor balcony or looking over the banisters of a stair well close to the bottom. Continue by exposing yourself/the person to gradually increasing heights. When you feel ready perhaps try an experience day, such as a virtual experience… or if you are feeling brave, an Indoor skydiving experience, could be a good starting point.

Medication

Some people find it necessary to expose themselves to high places because of their job (working in a high-rise building, flying to conferences etc.), so manage anxiety levels when exposed to heights with medication. This isn’t a cure, but it can stop you/the person going into a full-blown panic attack. Medication should always be discussed with a professional medical practitioner, such as your consultant or GP.

Natural therapies

Some people find complementary therapies to be extremely effective in helping to overcome phobias. Mindfulness courses, acupuncture, homeopathy, herbal medicines and even nutritional therapy are all alternative approaches to health that can be useful for improving wellbeing. Remember to always research practitioners and ensure they are fully trained. Contact the relevant body governing the complementary therapy you would like to try to find a suitable practitioner near to you.

How can Anxiety UK help?

If you would like support with a fear of heights, Anxiety UK provides access to reduced cost talking therapies including counselling, hypnotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. Take the first step to conquering your fear by becoming an AUK member and submitting a therapy application here https://www.anxietyuk.org.uk/our-services/book-your-therapy-here/ today.

You can also download the AUK Fear of Heights fact sheet here

Bio:

Mike James is a writer based in Brighton published in numerous online and print magazines. Working with Into the Blue, Mike is aiming to help others like himself who have suffered with an anxiety and fear of high places through challenging it head on.

This is a paid-for, advertorial blog submitted by an individual whose website, products, services and associations are independent of, and not directly endorsed by Anxiety UK. The views expressed by the contributor are not necessarily those of Anxiety UK, nor can we guarantee the accuracy of the information provided. If you would like to feature an advertorial blog with AUK please email [email protected] for more information

4 Ways to Face Your Fears and Overcome Phobias

We all have them — fears, phobias, anxieties that shorten our breath, quicken our heartbeats, and sometimes can outright disable us. Some of us shut our eyes and hold our breath as we ride the elevator to the tenth floor of an office building, while others pray the Rosary inside that coffin-like enclosure when getting an MRI.

I am afraid of heights — in particularly driving over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It doesn’t look all that menacing, but the structure spans over 4.3 miles and reaches to 200 feet high in places. I’m obviously not alone with my jitters, because two years ago Inside Edition did a story on it, calling it quite possibly the scariest bridge in the world. It was also on Travel + Leisure’s list of the 10 scariest bridges in the world — the only other two American bridges being the Mackinac Straights Bridge in Michigan and the Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado.

The Bay Bridge connects Maryland’s eastern and western shores (Annapolis is on the western shore), so kids’ sporting events on the eastern shore present a real problem for a mom with gephyrophobia (a fear of crossing bridges — yes, there is a word for us!). Usually I would make my husband take off work to drive either Katherine or David across the bridge. But the other night he was out of town, so I was forced to face my fear, which is usually the way phobias are addressed.

I followed these four steps as my strategy, which I thought might help you because I realized (once I was on the other side) that they actually apply to everything we don’t want to do and to living with depression, in general.

1. Focus on the Yellow Lines (Or What’s Right in Front of You)

This is true of so many things — if we can keep our view on just what is in front of us, instead of the really high span a mile ahead, we have a better shot of staying calm. Ironically, when I swam UNDER the bridge — during which people freak out, as well, because at places you are swimming in 174-feet deep water — someone told me to count the concrete constructions along the way, to never try to gauge how much distance to the other side. It was sage advice. Whenever I looked up and tried to figure out how much water to the shore, my breath became more labored and swimming became much more difficult. But if I could concentrate on counting my strokes and the constructions along the way, I made better time toward the shore, and I forgot that I was a mile away from land on each side.

When driving over the bridge, I did much better when I kept my gaze down at the yellow lines. This is also true if you are in the midst of a depressive episode. I always tell people to take it 15 minutes at a time, no more.

2. Take Some Cheerleaders

“Mom, this is not that big of a deal,” my son reminded me as we paid the $4 toll to get across the bridge. Conquering your fear is much easier when you have some cheerleaders to accompany you. This is true when you challenge yourself in any regard, from running a 5K to giving a talk at an event. I remember the time when a friend of mine couldn’t get into an elevator of skyscraper in New York City until my sister offered to ride up with her.

Of course, the cheerleaders can also distract you, which is a plus, like on the way back when my kids were fighting over a Chick-Fil-A milkshake, grabbing it out of each other’s hands just as we reached the highest part of the bridge. My attention turned from the little yellow lines to screaming, “Stop it already! Can’t you see Mom’s not having fun?!”

3. Watch Your Breath

In addition to counting the yellow lines, I practiced a modified Pranayama, the first breathing exercise of Bikram yoga. Obviously my hands were on the steering wheel and I couldn’t throw my head back, but I inhaled to a count of six breathing in through my nose and then exhaled to a count of six breathing through out my mouth.

When you breathe deeply, you stimulate your vagus nerve, a long nerve that extends from our medulla oblongata, located in the brain stem, to the stomach and links our two nervous systems (the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system). It is often considered a bridge between between our conscious minds (“I am driving across a really high bridge”) and subconscious minds (“I’ll never be able to overcome my fears”). By stimulating the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system, we release anti-stress enzymes and hormones such as acetylcholine, prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin.

The first thing that happens when we panic is that our breath grows shallow and the loss of oxygen sends an alarm throughout our body that we are in harm’s way, which further paralyzes our thoughts and our biological systems. Stopping this reaction as it is happening is much more difficult than keeping it from happening to begin with, so it’s best to slow your breath from the beginning and make sure you keep it at a deliberate, measured pace until you’re on dry land or out of the elevator.

4. Apply Some Humor

I was very glad that a friend asked me to watch Bob Newhart’s video “Stop It” last week before I attempted the bridge drive. I apologize in advance if anyone finds the video offensive, but for those of us who have endured some really bad therapy sessions and have fears that make absolutely no sense, it is a welcome comic relief. The woman who comes in for therapy is afraid she is going to be buried in a box alive, and Bob simply says, “STOP IT!” She goes on to say she has bad relationships with men, is bulimic (I realize this is sensitive, but I also had an eating disorder and I appreciated the humor), and a list of other things, and all he says is “STOP IT!”

At the highest point of the bridge, I did begin to panic a little and feared that I was going to have a bona fide panic attack. “What if I can no longer control my foot and I accidentally hit the accelerator, smashing us into this truck in front of us, and we go over the side,” I thought to myself. “Maybe I should open all the windows now so that the kids and I can climb out because the weight of the water will make it impossible for me to punch through the glass …” The ruminations were just beginning when I said to myself, “STOP IT!” and laughed, remembering the video. “This is insane. Just STOP IT!”

Join ProjectBeyondBlue.com, the new depression community.

Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.

4 Ways to Face Your Fears and Overcome Phobias

May 25, 2013— — The Mackinac Bridge in Michigan spans five miles and is one of the longest suspension bridges in the world with the roadway soaring more than 200 feet over Lake Michigan. The bridge’s dimensions provide stunning views of the surrounding landscape, but those vistas can be stomach-churning for people with gephyrophobia, or an abnormal fear of crossing bridges.

Between 1,200 to 1,400 calls are made every year to the bridge’s Drivers Assistance Program that provides motorists with a crew member to drive them across if they’re too afraid to drive themselves.

After the Thursday collapse of a highway bridge in Mount Vernon, Wash., the number of calls might increase with more fearful drivers wanting to be chauffeured across the Mackinac Bridge. But experts say phobias like gephyrophobia are sometimes more complicated in their origins.

READ MORE: I-5 Bridge Collapse Sends Cars Into Water

Dr. Frank Schneier, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and research psychiatrist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, said many people who’re afraid to cross bridges are also suffering from agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder triggered by a fear of feeling trapped.

“They have intense anxiety symptoms or panic attacks,” Schneier said. “It’s not so much the idea that bridges are . It’s that they are places you can’t escape from.”

About 0.8 percent of Americans older than 18 have a form of agoraphobia, according to the National Institute of Health.

“There are techniques that can help people overcome these kinds of fears,” Schneier said, citing therapy and anti-anxiety mediation as options for drivers to ease their worries.

But for those who haven’t conquered their fear of crossing the Mackinac Bridge, the Driver’s Assistance Program is another option. Bob Sweeney, the secretary of the Mackinac Bridge, said phone booths on either side of the bridge allow motorists the chance to call the program. Some even use it during their commute to and from work.

Only one crew member is available during the night shift, so a toll operator has to pitch in and drive a second car that picks up the crew member for the return trip to the opposite side of the bridge.

The Mackinac Bridge isn’t the only bridge that provides the extra service for fearful drivers. A similar program exists for New York City’s Tappan Zee Bridge. The New York Thruway Authority allows motorists afraid of driving across the bridge to make an appointment to be chauffeured over.

But a New York Thruway Authority representative estimated that the service is used far less than the Michigan program, likely only a handful of times annually.

Schneier said such programs to ferry scared drivers across bridges can be helpful to keep traffic moving but don’t solve the core of the problem and that people should seek help if their fears become incapacitating.

“It’s a patch to get the person over the bridge that day,” Schneier said. “Most people, with the right kind of help, can overcome these disorders if they become debilitating.”

For some people, however, even being chauffeured over the bridge is too much. Sweeney said his own brother-in-law is too afraid to drive across the Mackinac Bridge and, as a result, has never been to his home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which is joined to the state’s Lower Peninsula by the bridge.

For an upcoming family visit, Sweeney’s brother-in-law is planning to take two ferries to make the trip.

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