|Speaking to National Council of Jewish Women|
Because my father used to remind me that “Knowledge is power,” I decided to explore the subject further, even as I worked through the problem on wheels. And here’s what I discovered.
There are two versions of fear involved in every phobia: 1) a fear of the activity, circumstances or object and 2) a fear of the panic attack associated with it. Now, a panic attack is not your normal garden variety anxiety. A medical text’s list of possible symptoms includes: shaking, sweating, nausea, blurred vision, dry mouth, chilled extremities, and the belief that you are either going crazy or about to die. Scary stuff. So scary that if something sets off a panic attack at the moment you’re driving at high speeds, the natural response is to avoid repeating that action. From then on, you’re not only fearing and avoiding highway driving, you’re taking measures to duck the panic attack associated with it. Or to paraphrase FDR, “The major thing a phobic has to fear is fear itself.”But what triggered my first panic attack on the beltway? After all, I’d been driving it for years without a problem. Well, maybe it was my accident at Exit 20, the one that medics were afraid broke my neck (it turned out to be only a bad bruise, thank heaven). You’ve probably heard another version of this simple cause and effect response: a child bitten by a dog may be frightened of even the sweetest, most docile pups forever after.
Not every trigger is that specific, however. If Grandma was spooked by escalators and Uncle Joe was terrified of spiders, you may have inherited a predisposition to panic attacks. In many cases, this biochemical landmine remains dormant for your entire life. In others, it explodes. Stress of any kind—divorce, death of a spouse, job loss, financial problems; even good stress like planning a wedding or welcoming a new baby—can set it off. Where you are or what you’re doing at that moment may become associated with that unrelated, stress-induced panic attack and presto! you’ve got yourself a first class phobia.As you avoid those awful feelings by taking back roads at ambling speed, your world shrinks and shrinks and shrinks until you—and only you, not your spouse or your kids or your friends—decide it’s time to take back your power. “How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change.”
The treatment for phobias is called “counter conditioning” because you’re reversing what you have conditioned yourself to believe. “Beltways are dangerous, they can kill you if you make a mistake, and they cause panic attacks which are worse than death” was my self-taught lesson. So every week, an experienced (and courageous) therapist accompanies me as I take steps toward my goal of driving wherever at whatever is the legal speed limit. We started with baby steps, a few miles down a four-lane highway, and repeated that until it felt comfortable. And now, after months of practice under increasingly challenging circumstances, while Dr. Calm sits with perfect confidence beside me, I’m zooming down the beltway at 55. True, not yet entirely on my own. And, yes, with an occasional surge of fear. But I’m on my way. At last.We welcome your comments about how you deal with your fears. And they don’t have to be full-fledged phobias...even small fears take courage to face and overcome.