3 Steps for Conquering a Phobia

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Photo by Willie Fineberg on Unsplash

Last year our little city was evacuated due to hurricane Irma, so I loaded up the car and headed west to visit family.  Thankfully, our area was spared the worst of the damage, and we were soon able to go home.  The return trip was incredibly stressful, as we were sharing the Interstate with tens of thousands of other people who were also returning to their homes along the Gulf Coast.  It took us over 13 hours to travel the last 300 miles, and although I managed to not lose my sanity, I was unaware I’d gained something along the way – Gephyrophobia – a crippling fear of bridges.

There are a lot of bridges between Florida and Texas, and some of them are quite big.  I’ve driven across them dozens of times, and even recall when going over any bridge was my favorite part of a road-trip.  But for months after Irma, crossing bridges would send me into a full-blown anxiety attack — I mean palm-sweating, heart-pounding, head-spinning panic.  I began planning out alternate routes to everywhere, sometimes going an hour or more out of the way just to avoid bridges.  Not the most practical solution when you live near water.

As luck would have it, an opportunity opened up for me to work one day a week in another county.  I jumped at the chance, but soon had regrets.  The office was on the other side of the bay, and a 3-mile bridge was the only way to get there.  Three miles doesn’t sound like much, but when it’s a three-mile panic attack, it feels like forever.  I knew if I didn’t conquer my bridge fear, it was going to seriously interfere with my life.

For a while, sheer willpower got me to the other side of each bridge, but not without the nausea and dread which accompanied each crossing.  The bridges weren’t going away, so how could I make the anxiety go instead?  After much trial and error — which included everything from controlled breathing to counting backwards from 100 — I finally landed on the three steps which successfully settled me.

  1. Ask yourself, Is This Really a Problem?

First, determine if the fear is even worth your concern.  Is it affecting your life?  For instance, most people can live a perfectly happy lifetime without ever going on a cruise, flying anywhere, or riding a roller coaster.  But, if you live in a town with a ferry, and frequently need to get from one side to another, the fear of being on a boat can be distressful and disruptive.  If a promotion at work will require you to travel outside the country, fear of flying can cost you the opportunity for advancement.  The key is determining:

  • How likely are you to encounter the thing you fear?
  • How realistic is simply avoiding it?

If your fear is getting in the way of your day-to-day living, taking a path of avoidance is probably not going to get you very far.

  1. Study up on your fear

Knowledge is power.  When I did an Internet search for “fear of bridges”, I was amazed to find how common it was.  Just knowing other people had the same phobia reassured me I wasn’t crazy.  Take some time to try and determine the root cause of your fear.  In my case, I traced it to a combination of re-watching “The Mothman Prophecies” a week before being gridlocked on a couple of very tall bridges for hours.  (SPOILER ALERT: If you’ve never seen “Mothman”, it recounts the strange, paranormal events in a small town prior to a disastrous bridge collapse.)  When I was stuck on those bridges, I caught myself staring at the steel bolts and rivets wondering, “When’s the last time you were inspected?”

Look for ideas from other people who have conquered the same fear.  I found several posts online, and although these didn’t directly resolve the issue, they did guide me in the right direction.  Most importantly, they reinforced the idea my phobia COULD be beaten.

  1. Be Patient With Yourself

I wish I could tell you conquering fear is as easy as deciding to do it, but it took me a few months.  Give yourself credit for any progress – it really matters!  If you were a little less scared this time than last time, make a note of whatever helped and pat yourself on the back.  If one tactic doesn’t work, try something else.  Keep trying until you find the method, or combination of them, which works for you.

In my case, I found listening to my Spanish lessons was extremely helpful, as it shifted the focus from the anxiety center of my brain to the problem-solving part of my brain.  Focusing directly on the car in front of me was also helpful.  My anxiety lessened with each bridge.  I knew I’d finally conquered it when I recently drove across those same big, dreaded Irma bridges – no Spanish, no staring at the car in front of me – just me listening to the radio and thinking, “Hmm, you’re not as big as I remembered…”

Incidentally, if you are also struggling with bridges, feel free to message me.  I’ll be happy to share a little more details about what I tried, what helped, and what didn’t.  I can’t promise what worked for me will work for you, but it may get you on the path to finding your own solution.

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