Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Taking Back the Power (Steering): My Driving Phobia II

Some time ago, I wrote that I’d finally decided to deal with my highway driving phobia, a post that prompted comments not only on the blog, but generated a flurry of correspondence to its email address:

Speaking to National Council of Jewish Women
I've spoken to a number of groups lately about my books and blog, and this topic, more than any other I mention, evokes an intense reaction. Invariably a hum of sympathy, along with perhaps recognition and self-identification, buzzes through the audience. And later, fellow sufferers approach to clasp my hands and tell me their own harrowing stories.

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.
Toby Devens 


  1. I found your article both educational and encouraging. My daughter has an extreme fear of flying--and I think much of what you say here, in your blog, may apply to her situation. I'll be sending her to read this. Thanks for this enlightening discussion.

  2. Many phobias are about control and the fear of being trapped. Flying is a major one, of course. And the counterconditioning process works for all. Therapists have told me that the cure rate is very high.

  3. I find it amazing how many people are dealing with some form of anxiety disorders, especially panic attacks. Some of the most "together" people I know are dealing with these problems, but you only hear about it when you open up about yourself. Thanks for bringing this out into the light of day, Toby. We can only conquer our closet monsters when we are willing to open the door.

  4. Fabulous to hear that you squarely faced the problem and then took concrete steps to do something about it. I'm betting that for most people with anxiety disorders actually taking some action to change things is the scariest part of all. Maybe sharing what led you to confront the demons would be helpful to those still enervated?

  5. Yes, Pearl, the numbers are staggering. And they probably don't represent the real scope of the condition because shame is so closely associated with anxiety disorders, there's got to be significant underreporting.
    Also: my sense is that apparently "Together" people are top candidates for anxiety. They tend to be achievers and perfectionists and get super stressed out when things go wrong. From there, it's just a jump to anxiety and, for some, a hop to a phobia. Caveat: the above opinion is brought to you by someone unlicensed in the practice of psychotherapy. And specialists in the field have not found a particular personality type prone to panic attacks. They're equal opportunity predators with no bias in terms of gender, educational background,age, etc.

  6. I've never experienced a panic attack, although spiders of a certain size can nudge me toward one and I'm not all that comfy with heights. Still, what you describe is alien to me, which launches me all that closer to heroine worship when it comes to you. You faced your fear and licked it! Brava!!

    1. If you never had one, you are damn lucky!

  7. I remember my first panic attack. I was pregnant w/ my second child, and I had a doctor's appointment the next morning. This was the era when they were very strict about how much weight you could gain. I'd gained too much, and I knew the doctor was going to give me a lecture. To try and avoid the consequences of what we'd now think as normal pregnancy weight gain, I didn't eat much the day before the appointment. After I'd gone to bed, I woke up with a lot of the symptoms you gave above. I thought something terrible was wrong, called the doctor, and explained that I'd hardly eaten anything that day. Obviously annoyed at being awakened, he said, "Go down to the kitchen and eat something." That was my first panic attack but not my last.

  8. I hate touching raw chicken. Just the thoughts of it makes me do the "hebbie jebbie" dance. Not making fun of your situation; honest. I really cannot stand the thoughts of touching a dead chicken. I call it icky-chicken. I visit the Colonel. It's what God intended.

  9. Chassie and Queen JJ~Count yourself as blessed. You've been spared a heart-stopping experience. As Ruth knows (and not to diminish your aversions), squeamish is to panic attacks as a brisk breeze is to a tornado.
    The good news is there are highly effective pharmaceutical and behavorial modalities to treat them now. I haven't had a P.A. in twenty-five years and respectfully decline to entertain one ever again.

  10. I want so badly to overcome my beltway phobia. I have no one to help with this. I think my biggest fear is getting lost and those huge tractors. I make up my mind to get on the beltway, but as I approach it, I change my mind. I deseparately need help. I feel like this is hindering me from from doing many things. I am an experienced driver of 20 years and I feel so ridiculous.

  11. Very brave of you to post, Christine. By doing that, you've taken the first step. There's a national association of therapists who specialize in phobias and I'm sure there is one in your area. I will be seeing my therapist at the end of the week and I'll get the name of the association and you can check it out for someone near you.
    And, I know just how you feel. I can't tell you the number of times I apprached a beltway entrance and changed my mind at the last minute. It's never too late to get this thing licked. I'm doing it after decades. This week, for the first time, I'm going to drive one of the dreaded highway routes without Dr. Calm beside me in the passenger seat. I'll be on my own and he'll trail me in his car. And I'm excited to do it!

    Christine, you can communicate with me privately by email to if you like. But I'll also post the association name soon. Hang in can conquer this--you just need some expert help and a slow, confidence building program.