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.

4 Tips for Avoiding Hurricanxiety

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Photo by Brian Cook on Unsplash

This week’s post is something a little different.  Instead of addressing the way our thinking influences our anxiety and depression, it focuses on how we can avoid increasing our anxiety by not making a bad situation worse.  The 2017 hurricane season has been a monster, and it’s not over yet.  During a recent evacuation, there were several moments where I truly thought I was going to lose my marbles.  Anxiety levels were nearing sky-high, but I managed to learn a few things which kept me sane and made the situation much more manageable.  These are ideas you may not see on the standard “hurricane preparedness” checklists, but which may be helpful in reducing the stress of hurricane season.

BOOK A ROOM (whether you need it, or not)

If a hurricane is headed your way – even if its predicted landing is several days out – book a hotel room at a reasonable evacuation point, away from the path of the storm.  Be careful which website you book from, since many are “pay up front” reservations.  What you want is a hotel with a friendly cancellation policy, such as “24 hours ahead” or “by 10:00am on day of check-in.”  Then, watch and wait.  You will most likely know prior to the cancellation window if you will need the room or not.  If not, breathe a sigh of relief and cancel the reservation within the window to avoid penalties.  If you do need to evacuate, you already have a room and don’t have to compete with the thousands of other evacuees looking for a hotel at the last minute.  If you have pets, be sure to book at a pet-friendly hotel.

FUEL UP

During Irma, hundreds of thousands of Floridians passed through our small town.  Due to the influx of evacuees, by the time an evacuation was ordered locally, there were limited resources for residents.  Gas pumps all over town were empty, and people were lined up at every station waiting for petroleum trucks to arrive and replenish fuel supplies.  At the start of hurricane season, get a couple of 5 gallon gas cans, fill them up, and make sure you have a way to attach them to the outside of your car such as a bumper rack or a roof rack.  Basically, you want to ensure you have enough gas on-hand to reach your evacuation point, or at the very least to get you out of town.  Be sure to refill your cans whenever you find a station with gas.  The shortage is likely to extend beyond your hometown along the most popular evacuation routes, and it doesn’t end just because the storm has passed.  The same flood of evacuees has to return home, and people are running generators.  A lot of people run out of gas during evacuations.  Don’t be one of them.

VACUUM PACK

There is a lot of stress involved in deciding where to store your things when the places you usually store them are threatened by water and wind damage.  Consider buying some vacuum bags and keeping them on hand for hurricane season.  These serve two purposes: First, if you have to leave things behind, you can store your most precious items in these bags, vacuum seal them, and put them where you think they’ll be safe.  The vacuum seal removes extra air and allows you to stack or stuff the sealed bag into the attic, on top of a dresser, or to fit several seals bags onto an upper shelf.  If you are evacuating people and pets, space is precious in the car.  Consider vacuum packing your clothes instead of big bags or suitcases.  You can borrow the hotel’s vacuum to repack when you go home.  NOTE: During Irma, I was travelling with 3 adults and 3 pet carriers.  I was able to slip the vacuum packs under the pet carriers to save room, and we all rode comfortably — or as comfortably as possible under the circumstances.

DON’T RUSH

This may sound nuts, especially if you’ve been ordered to evacuate, but what I mean is don’t wait until the last minute to prepare.  Don’t wait until the day the storm is supposed to make landfall to hit the road, and when you do hit the road, you can avoid major traffic congestion by taking some back roads when available.  Take the time before you evacuate to map out alternate routes.

When you are on the road and in bumper-to-bumper traffic, don’t be afraid to pull off if you need a break.  I heard myself saying, “We are not exiting this freeway” and then I realized how ridiculous I was being.  With thousands of cars on the freeway, making a pit stop really doesn’t make any difference.  If you need to pee, stop to pee.  The situation is difficult enough without making yourself even more uncomfortable.  Granted, there may be a lot of people at the rest stop, but make the best of it by stretching and catching a breath of fresh air before returning to the car.  Then, if at all possible, avoid heading home the day after the storm hits.  Give yourself an extra day in order to avoid freeway gridlock.  You’ll be glad you did.

These are just a few simple things which proved beyond value for me and my fellow (and some furry) evacuees.  If you’ve learned something from your own hurricane experience – something other than the typical “stock up on non-perishables, water, batteries, and so forth – or if you find any of these tips helpful, I hope you will share them in the comments.