Diary of a Phobia and Overcoming Anxiety

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Millions of people are affected in some way by irrational fears. Researchers have identified many different types of phobias, ranging from some which seem perfectly reasonable (although extreme) to some which sound absolutely fictitious.

I would never have guessed that I myself might one day need help with a phobia of some kind, and ever since it began (I could pinpoint the day and time, if I spent a few minutes to look at a calendar), I have wondered how it came about. I do have some theories about that, but first let me share the story.

Throughout my childhood, I heard certain verbal expressions that were nothing more than everyday Southern hyperbole.

“I could have killed him!” was not a statement to be feared, corrected, chastised, or maligned. It was usually accompanied by a self-deprecating half-laugh, and everyone who heard it understood it to mean simply “I was really upset with him.”

Similarly, we often spoke of being “so depressed” instead of “a little bit blue” or “disappointed because things didn’t go my way.” And "having a phobia” merely meant that we were somewhat disgusted by or otherwise preferred to avoid some item, person, or situation.

But words can influence, as well as illustrate and illuminate, the way we feel. Who’s to say whether the chicken or the egg came first in this case? I have often wondered whether our societal tendency to use exaggerated terminology made us more prone to depression and phobias, or whether our tendency towards depression and phobias made us more prone to use words that leaked those feelings in a culturally acceptable way.

Bridge over the Ohio River in Evansville

Licensed under a Creative Commons License and Used by Permission of the Photographer Ron Bieber
Licensed under a Creative Commons License and Used by Permission of the Photographer Ron Bieber

Nature or Nurture?

Within my immediate family, I know of cases of an animal phobia (specifically squirmy-wormy, larva-like critters), claustrophobia, acrophobia, and a fear of bridges (later identified as gephyrophobia) or rivers (potamophobia) or both. That latter one belonged to my mother’s older sister, and we felt sad (or were we so depressed?) that she had to deal with it. For some people it wouldn’t have mattered so very much, but she lived in a town right on the Mississippi River, across the river from her sisters. So if she wanted to visit any of them, they had to go see her; she couldn’t face traveling across the river to spend time with them.

My mother’s acrophobia had an impact on family vacations from time to time – like the time she had to sit on the floor and lower her face onto her knees while waiting for the elevator at the top of the Empire State Building. (Actually, in that instance additional factors were at work too. I’d best not exaggerate here.) Rather embarrassing. And one of my sisters had to find a quick exit – fortunately built in just for such purposes – from the sweaty-smelly, grimy maze in the Boys Scouts of America National Museum (in a previous location, not the current one) due to claustrophobia. I got stuck with the five kids from that point until the exit, and I almost succumbed to the same sort of near-panic myself. But I had tried in earlier years to develop a tough mental attitude about circumstances such as those. I had learned to love climbing heights in order to enjoy wide-open vistas, and I did my best to avoid thinking about being closed-in whenever I was in a crowded elevator or similar enclosure. I didn’t want to allow commonplace discomforts to cheat me out of happy excursions.

Maybe I could avoid claustrophobia and acrophobia, but I knew that I definitely did have a fear of or disgust with larvae-like worms. Not earthworms, though. Those were allies, “God’s little farmers,” and I loved watching them, even holding them for a minute or two. It was the squishy, wiggly, grotesque larvae (including caterpillars) that were my least favorite creatures in all the world – certainly worth walking far on the other side of a parking lot to avoid. I didn’t really see much reason to modify or consciously adapt my attitude towards larvae the way I did with heights and enclosed spaces. That may have been the reason why the real phobia I developed came as such a surprise; I was just completely unprepared for it.

Peace and Reflection or Threat and Fear?

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It Happened One February

I can pinpoint the event that triggered it, and if I took the time to research and review other details of my memory, I could give you the exact day/date, time and place where it was born.

It was in late February. My aunt had died, and I had set out from home to drive five hours to be with the family for her funeral. My husband and children were not able to go with me, and I was late getting all my stuff together and ready to leave. I had not paid attention to weather reports and was a bit irritated or even miffed when I encountered a reasonably significant snowfall only about half an hour from home. My first inclination was to wonder whether my husband had seen the predictions and failed to warn me of the possibility of weather that I might encounter. But that disgruntled thought was followed immediately by the question of whether I should turn back and skip the funeral altogether.

I decided to plow on. The snow might be falling in only an isolated location, and since I was heading south and since the snow was most likely moving towards the north, there was a good chance that I would drive out of the storm before long. But the weather, and my edginess at getting a late start, did have me emotionally on high alert. To top it off, after another good bit of driving, it seemed that perhaps I was getting a bit too comfortable and relaxed and so I made a pit stop, filled up the car with gasoline, and bought some snacks and favorite travel beverage, Frappucino. That would help get me mentally back in focus again on the lonely drive.

It was getting later in the day, dark already, and I had to work to overcome some anxiety, not knowing what the weather would be like as I continued the drive. But my earlier guess had been right. I did out-drive the snowstorm, to my relief. I reached the midway point in the trip, Evansville, and was ready to cross the Ohio River into Kentucky. It was the same route I had driven many times before, both with passengers and alone: same automobile, same roads, same darkness. But this time, as the car began its ascent up the bridge, things felt different.

Ohio River Bridge in Evansville, Indiana

Fire in the Sky photo by ladywings, licensed by http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/deed.en
Fire in the Sky photo by ladywings, licensed by http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/deed.en

Out of the Darkness

Due to the time of day and overcast sky, the shadows on the bridge’s girders presented an ominous ambiance. Due to the angle of the highway as the bridge rose, the paving of the road ahead was hidden in a dark shadow, and it felt as if I were driving off into nothingness. I didn't analyze the feeling at that time. The car, after all, was moving at 55 mph (almost 90 kph) and I had to focus on those "little details" like steering, acceleration, and the possibility of needing to brake quickly, if some unseen danger emerged in the shadows. The car’s headlights revealed nothing amiss, but the feelings persisted. Anxiety and uncertainty grew stronger by the second, my hands grew clammier, my heart raced faster, and my breathing grew shallower.

In spite of all the anxiety, the bridge was completely safe. The car – with me in it, hands still attached to the steering wheel – crossed to the other side and into another state without the least hint of incident. There was no wreck to avoid, no foolhardy pedestrians who had decided to cross the bridge in the dark, no traffic pileup due to construction delays or tourists heading to the casinos on the river. There was no physical reason for the fear and anxiety, but the feelings had been so strong that I began to shake, even though the feared danger was over. I stopped in Henderson to get another snack and catch my breath. There was another 2.5 hours of driving left, and the remainder of the trip should be much easier than the past five minutes had been.

But I began to worry about my reaction. Was it an over-reaction? Was it the result of legitimate animal instincts, aroused when confronted with unknown dangers? Was this what my Aunt Love had gone through? Was it perhaps genetic? Was I going to face the same illogically hermitical lifestyle as she, because of not being able to drive easily across a bridge?

Considering Options

I probably brooded for the rest of the drive, worried about the necessity of a return trip. Could I face it alone? Could anyone among the family accompany me back home? If so, how would they get back to their destination? What about returning to Indiana by airplane? If I did that, how would my car get back across the river? I knew that my worry was silly, and I felt a degree of self-disgust about it. But I knew I also needed to be practical. As strong as my reaction had been, it was imperative that I do something to be prepared in order to be as safe as possible. I didn’t want to allow the possibility that my fears might endanger other travelers as well as myself.

Not surprisingly I made it to my destination without incident, and I was happy to see family members, even in the midst of the sad circumstances that brought us together at that time. But after usual greetings – in fact, quite soon – I sought out a road atlas to investigate alternate ways to travel back home. The Ohio River runs between Indiana and Kentucky, and there was simply no way to avoid crossing it somehow. I could drive east all the way to Louisville and cross the river there on the Kennedy bridge; but part of that bridge made up one strand of the infamous Spaghetti Junction, and that was probably not the most desirable or safest place for facing up to my feelings of dread.

As I perused the map, I noticed another bridge across the river in Owensboro. That city was sizable enough that its bridge would likely be a large one. But what if it were as frightening to me as the one in Evansville? What if it were worse? Those were possibilities that I couldn’t predict, but I did know about the bridge in Evansville, and I wasn’t willing to drive across it again – at least not on this trip.

The Return Home

Spending days with family had a nurturing effect. When it came time to return home, I felt a little worry, even mild anxiety, about crossing the river; but I knew it had to be done and I was determined to face it no matter what. I had settled on the route through Owensboro, and I had decided to treat the drive like an experiment, playing the role of both scientist-observer and test subject. That could be interesting and even fun! I would get to see my own reactions and analyze them and then use them in the future to determine how to travel.

I timed the return trip so that I would cross the river during daylight hours. The bridge extended from a highway through the heart of town, and that fact alone made it feel safer. It was as if the presence of other humans so close by would somehow protect me. This bridge was also lower to the ground and the river than the one in Evansville.

But it looked somewhat old, dilapidated and shabby. The pavement had some cracks in it, and that did nothing to boost my confidence. There was no time to evaluate its safety or try to find an escape route, because suddenly the car was up on it and I was committed to the crossing. The combination of daylight, nearby people, sheer determination, necessity, and awe at participating both as observer and observed gave me whatever was needed to get across it in one piece. Despite my nervousness and the bridge's apparent state of disrepair, the trip was pretty lackluster. I decided it would be my bridge of choice for future trips.

And future trips there would be: trips for assisting my cousins with clearing and organizing the effects in our aunt’s house; trips for moving some of the furniture I had inherited; trips for visiting with other family members, when they came to that part of the country. Every trip would involve two river crossings - no way around that - and I felt it was imperative to find a way of overcoming anxiety that had come upon me so suddenly and unexpectedly.

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Comments 13 comments

Aficionada profile image

Aficionada 4 years ago from Indiana, USA Author

It was definitely scary, brakel2! Even though I have learned some techniques for coping with the problem, I still find that I have trouble with it from time to time. I have to find the right balance between focusing on it too strongly and not at all (becoming over-confident), both of which make it worse.

The snacks helped to some degree, but I also think that the caffeine played a role in creating the problem to begin with. Several factors working together helped it emerge - the human psyche is a fascinating critter!


brakel2 profile image

brakel2 4 years ago from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

It sounds very scary to me. I do not like to drive at night by myself. Your descriptions of the road and bridge and the darkness were vivid. Your description of your fear were so real, I felt like I was there. That is sometimes difficult to get across in a story. Your experiment got you through the difficulty, and you became a survivor. The snacks were great, as we always feel better whey we are eating. Thank you for the opportunity to read about the trip and the phobia.


Spirit Whisperer profile image

Spirit Whisperer 5 years ago from Isle of Man

Aficionada, As I am based in the United kingdom and trained in Ireland I would recommend people visit the websites of the Professional Associations I am a member to find a suitably experienced and qualified therapist in their area within the UK

Here is a link to my homepage where this information can be found and perhaps the administrators of these associations may be able to direct you to a suitable site in the USA http://www.manxhypnosis.com/


Aficionada profile image

Aficionada 5 years ago from Indiana, USA Author

Thanks for sharing your insight, Spirit Whisperer! I look forward to reading your Hubs to learn more about Hypnotherapy. If you know of a site that offers a guide to locating qualified Hypno-Psychotherapists (whew, I had to type slowly on that one!), I would be more than happy to post a link to it. I believe other readers might like to know how to find one, just as I would.


Spirit Whisperer profile image

Spirit Whisperer 5 years ago from Isle of Man

Most people nowadays tend to focus on the symptom rather than the cause. Medication treats the symptom of a condition but it does not address the cause. managing the symptoms using tricks to the distract the mind is also an example of how we zero in on the effect and ignore the cause. It is like someone turning off the smoke alarm because the y find the noise irritating. The symptom is telling you of an underlying emotional root cause. When you address the cause the symptom disappears. The phobia is the symptom and the emotional root cause behind the phobia lies hidden in the subconscious. Find a qualified Hypno-Psychotherapist to help you address the cause and reclaim your freedom.


Aficionada profile image

Aficionada 5 years ago from Indiana, USA Author

Thanks for reading, suncat. Yes, phobias definitely do vary in degree, and some are more life-altering than others. In my case, it is an interesting exercise to step outside myself and try to analyze what's been going on - not always helpful, but interesting.


suncat profile image

suncat 5 years ago

yea, phobias are no fun.

Some are worse than others. But one should at least try to be brave.


Aficionada profile image

Aficionada 6 years ago from Indiana, USA Author

ddsurfsca, Thank you for reading and for taking the time to comment. Indeed, the problem that you describe is truly awful. As CMHypno (above) wrote, it is actually debilitating. Thank you for allowing others to know about this, because I believe that as people talk about what is going on in their heads, it is possible to develop better understanding of one another and also possible for people to share what has helped them. I hope others who read will add comments that may be helpful.

In addition to another article about my phobia that is already available (a much worse episode than described here), I have yet another story about my experience to add, one that I have not written yet. The short version of that is that I have found when I think about the problem, and think about the way I am feeling, it becomes much worse. If I am able to put all of my attention on what I am doing (in my case, the process of driving, watching traffic, watching my speed, all of those details) without allowing the thoughts about my feelings to enter my head, I am much more able to cope, and that gives me more confidence for the next time.

But, as you have written, just thinking about it is upsetting. When I began writing these articles, I felt very confident that I could share them easily. But as I wrote out the details, the fears and anxieties returned, so that I will need to go through the process of desensitizing myself once again - when I am ready.

And I realize that the scope of my problem is far less than what you face. I can find alternatives to driving across bridges much more easily than you can find alternatives to walking down streets. But I commend you very heartily for finding ways to go from one safe place to another!!! The best we can do is the best we can do.


ddsurfsca profile image

ddsurfsca 6 years ago from ventura., california

I have phobia problems, and it is worse than bridges. I am at the best somewhat, and worst, very agourophobic. (sp?) Sometimes if I have time to prepare, I can go out, like shopping, or sometimes the library, but I always feel like I am going from one safe place to another. I NEVER feel safe walking down the street. It is very tricky to live with something like this. My grandmother was also not able to leave her house, Sometimes just thinking about it causes me to be very upset. I feel like people just do not understand what goes on in my head.


Aficionada profile image

Aficionada 6 years ago from Indiana, USA Author

Carrie M., that's an interesting insight into the way we feel things as we age. In my research (which I hope to write about soon), I have learned that phobias that develop during childhood have a different sort of origin and life-cycle from those that develop in teen years and adulthood. It is definitely worthwhile to learn techniques to stave off anxiety before it becomes overwhelming! Thanks for reading.


Carrie.M profile image

Carrie.M 6 years ago from MI, United States

What a fascinating insight into the development of a phobia. I wonder if it is something we are more prone to as we get older. In the past few years I have noticed that I tend to "feel" things more intensely. Stuff that I never gave a second thought before are now gaining my attention and I often feel anxiety building. I look forward to reading your other hubs.


Aficionada profile image

Aficionada 6 years ago from Indiana, USA Author

Yes, indeed! In researching the subject, I have learned about several different categories of phobias and the criteria that are used to diagnose them. That information will be a part of the next of these articles or, if that one becomes too long, the one after it. Even just writing the next installment, I have struggled with experiencing the kind of anxiety I felt - even more strongly - after the initial episode described here.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 6 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

True phobias are very debilitating for those who suffer them, and also affect their friends and family. Interesting Hub on what can be a painful subject

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