By Nate Prentice, LCSW, CAS-PC
Ever since I was 4, I had a fear of heights. When I was 4, I had to walk down a flight of stairs that had no handrails, and were simply sticking out of the wall. I can still remember the feeling of terror walking down those stairs.
In 1996, my wife and I were traveling down a mountain road in Vermont at dusk. We hit a patch of black ice, slid, and rolled down the mountain. Miraculously, all we had were minor scratches. Take home for you, gentle reader? Just buy Subaru.
After the car accident, my fear of heights increased dramatically, especially when driving or being a passenger in a car going near a cliff, or going over a bridge. Feelings of panic would overwhelm me, I would see the roof of the car collapsing towards my head again, and I found it to be particularly difficult to handle these situations.
Over the holidays in 2013, we went to Virginia for vacation. We took the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. If you are not familiar with it, it is a 17-mile long monstrosity spanning the Chesapeake Bay. 17 miles (minus occasional short tunnels) of two lanes with deep, cold water on both sides and no view of land. The first time I went over it, on the way down, I simply played music on my iPhone and closed my eyes the whole way. It was a beautiful, clear day when we went down. The glimpses I did take when I opened my eyes were beautiful, but immobilizing with fear. I took quite a few deep breaths on the other side.
On the way back, however, I made up my mind to not do a repeat.
One thing I do know as a psychotherapist is that the mind is a beautiful thing. Over millions of years of fine tuning through natural selection, intelligent design, or whatever you want to call it, it has reached this pinnacle of ability for self-preservation so that we are able to enjoy this life with a modicum of security.
The four major messages the self-protecting part of our brain wants to convey to us are:
You are safe and feeling comfort. You should stay or seek more of this.
You should fight.
You should hide.
You should flee.
The self-protective part of your brain wants to make you aware of a possible threat and give you the energy needed to deal with it through reappraisal of the threat (making sure you are safe/not safe), and either feeling comfort due to assuring safety or fighting/hiding/fleeing due to the perceived lack of safety.
If you ever want to know why you are having uncomfortable feelings, it is because one of these self-protection responses is being triggered.
This. Is. A. Good. Thing.
If you did not have these feelings, you would walk out into traffic and stay there. This is millions of years of development and fine tuning at the service of protecting you at work.
Traffic Signal “Walk”, New York City
Traffic Signal “Walk”, New York City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
So, why would I freak out on bridges? There is no appreciable threat. I know that.
The problem does not lie with the fact that there is a bridge. The fact does not lie with the fact that I am in a car on a bridge.
The problem was my relationship with my feelings of terror. Get rid of the feelings, and everything will be better, right?
That’s like telling someone to not think about elephants doing ballet and them asking them what their immediate thought was. Mine has a white tutu. What color was yours? So, fight it. Don’t think of elephants standing en pointe, or kicking, spinning… Working yet? No? Try distraction. Yep. Tell yourself to think about something else other than elephants doing…oops.
What if your irrational feelings were actually your allies?
Well, after millions of years of development, they have kept you alive to this point, right? Remember the self-protective part of your brain wants to make you aware of a possible threat and give you the energy needed to deal with it through reappraisal of the threat (making sure you are safe/not safe), and either feeling comfort due to assuring safety or fighting/hiding/fleeing due to the perceived lack of safety. It wants to be your ally.
So, invite it to be your ally, instead of your enemy.
The next time I went to the bridge, on the way back, I made a point of trying to remember this.
First, I remembered the purpose of my anxiety, to make sure I was safe, not to harm me.
Second, I let it be there and thanked it for its helpful presence in letting me know that it perceived danger. I was no longer having a fight or flight response to the very presence of my fear, which was its own fight or flight response.
Third, I gratefully invited the feeling that was left to do its second job of giving me the strength I needed to cross over the bridge.
When we got on the bridge, it was pouring buckets and windy. Rain covered the roadway. However, I was able to look over the side at the water far below with far more peace. Anytime the fear let me know it was there, I thanked it and continued to enjoy what view there was. It was actually a fun experience.
You can do the same thing. Here’s how:
1. Anxiety is there to help, not hurt.
2. Let it be there as your ally and greet it with an attitude of gratitude.
3. Gratefully ask the feeling to help you see any real threats that need to be addressed and to give you what you need to get through the issue in mind with its power, which it is able and wanting to give you at your command.
4. When the anxiety resurfaces, thank it for simply continuing to do its job, and ask it to continue helping you.
Give it a try, and notice what works and what doesn’t work. Let me know what you find out.