Minneapolis Disaster May Spark 'Bridge Phobia'

Sweaty palms. A racing heart. Panicked feelings of losing control.

Most people might experience these physical reactions when real danger is imminent. But for some, the seemingly simple act of crossing a bridge brings on this type of terror.

And with the news of last night's tragedy in Minneapolis, those with gephyrophobia (pronounced: JEFF-i-ro-FO-bee-uh) -- or "bridge phobia" -- could see their anxiety increase.

"The anxiety of people certainly could be kicked up by this, and a small percentage of people who had anxiety before may move into the phobic category," says Dr. Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

It can cause considerable complications to the lives of those who have it. Take the story of Jay Fenton of Annapolis, Md., a Vietnam veteran whose experiences led to a paralyzing fear of crossing bridges.

"I thought I was losing control," he says. "My heart was pumping. I was dizzy and lightheaded, and I thought I was going to pass out."

So severe was Fenton's phobia that he could not go on vacation with his family for fear of crossing a bridge.

When he eventually did need to cross one, he had to ask someone to drive him from one end to the other -- after he locked himself in his trunk.

"It was terrible," he says.

Fortunately for Fenton, a combination of breathing techniques and visualization treatment helped him move past his fear.

But those who don't seek professional treatment might make other adjustments to deal with their gephyrophobia -- like adding two or three hours to their daily work commutes just to avoid crossing a bridge.

Bridge phobia is more common than many may think; more than 4,000 people per year relinquish control of their vehicles and let state officers drive them across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland, for example.

"Their fear is not that the bridge is going to collapse; their fear is that they will get halfway across and freeze or drive off the bridge," says Jerilyn Ross, president of the Anxiety Disorder Association of America and the medical professional who treated Fenton.

"A true phobia is fear of fear itself -- a threat of danger that's not really dangerous."

Getting to the Roots of Phobia

So could a singular incident like the one in Minneapolis cause people to develop gephyrophobia?

"For those who are borderline, this may be enough to push them over the edge," says Seymour Segnit, president and founder of Change That's Right Now Inc. His New York-based company uses a nonmedical approach known as neuro-linguistic programming to help people with phobias overcome their fears.

"The classic formation of a phobia is when someone has a dramatic experience," he says. "And you don't have to be crossing a bridge when it collapses to have a bridge phobia."

While nearly everyone has their pet worries, a phobia goes above and beyond simple feelings of fear.

"Clearly there are people who are anxious but who can manage," Hilfer says. "This is the difference between anxiety and phobia. If you're anxious, you can go across a bridge despite your anxiety. But if you're phobic, most of the time you can't make it across a bridge."

A Perfect Storm of Phobia

Connections between high-profile disasters and the development of phobias are not unheard of. Hilfer notes that terrorism fears actually caused some people to develop various phobias -- including bridge phobias -- after the 9/11 attacks.

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