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!”