Minneapolis Disaster May Spark 'Bridge Phobia'

The collapse I-35W in Minnesota could intensify bridge anxiety for some.


Aug. 2, 2007 &#151; -- 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."

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."

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.

"Dramatic events can certainly result in people's behavior changing to the extent that it becomes limiting," he says.

While gephyrophobia does not top the list of common phobias, part of the reason that it has such a hold on those it affects may be the fact that a phobia of bridges can actually represent a combination of a number of other fears.

"They may be afraid of heights, or of being trapped by the sides of the bridge, in addition to the fear that something terrible is going to happen," Hilfer says.

Other more common phobias -- such as a fear of water or a fear of driving -- may build upon these worries, contributing to a perfect storm of fear.

And then there are tragedies like the one in Minneapolis, which for some bring these fears into the realm of reality.

"The way the mind plays out a phobia is by running the worst case scenario in the mind," Segnit says, adding that confirmation that such worst cases can actually occur can intensify fears.

Those without phobias can usually rationalize away this fear. They may, for example, reassure themselves by remembering that there are thousands of bridges in the United States, most of which are very safe.

But this kind of rationalization is not always successful, and in some cases professional treatment is necessary.

Hilfer says the worst thing that someone with a phobia can do is ignore the problem, particularly if it is wreaking havoc on day-to-day life.

"The longer that one has a phobia, the harder it is to get past it," he says.

One tool that has proved useful to medical professionals who treat phobias is systematic desensitization. This method involves exposing people to situations in which their phobias come forward, to help them eventually manage their fear.

For those who have an intense fear of crossing a bridge, for example, treatment may begin with them sitting in the passenger seat of a car while crossing a very short bridge. Gradually, the intensity of the experience would be increased until the person has learned to deal with their fearful impulses.

"One of the most empirically supported treatments in the literature is exposure treatment," says Maryrose Girardi, assistant professor of psychology at Emory University. "When you have people learn to confront their fear in a real-world situation, they stay with that anxiety until they find that it will actually go down over time."

Hilfer says that in more extreme cases of phobia, medications such as anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants may be useful when introducing phobia sufferers into the situations they fear.

"All phobias are treatable," Hilfer says. "I think that with the proper help, virtually all phobias can be lessened to the extent that people can deal with them."

Girardi agrees. "Whatever the situation is, they key is to not avoid it," she says. "If you avoid it, you don't get the chance to learn to deal with it and actually overcome it."

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