I’m not sure if it started with the dreams or in reality. I know that the dreams were often worse: I’d be driving on a long bridge, and then for some reason be completely unable to see anywhere but down. I’d look at the sweeping horizon, and then my head would stare at the floor, and I’d struggle to look up, but couldn’t. There was the sickening feeling of the car sliding toward the edge, and then driving off, the screams of my passengers roaring through the wind and the rain. I’d begun to have that feeling anytime I was driving near a bridge…
What are you afraid of? If you asked most people, they’d probably give somewhat silly answers, like spiders or ghosts. Some people would give more realistic answers, like war or losing their jobs. Those are fears. What they are not, however, are phobias. Having a phobia is a mental health disorder where something that is commonplace becomes a legitimate source of terror and anxiety. Understanding the difference between the two, and seeking professional help for phobias, is the best way to treat them–don’t let a phobia destroy your life.
When Fear Becomes a Phobia
I realized that this was more than just weird dreams. I started getting visibly nervous when driving if we had to cross a bridge, and the higher it got, the worse I felt. If it was a long bridge with a long run-up, I would start to sweat and clamp the wheel and have trouble breathing, with a sickening feeling growing in my stomach. This wasn’t as much of a problem if I was the passenger, but as a driver, I could hardly see straight.
There’s a strange trick of the human mind when it comes to being afraid, and one in which socialization plays a huge role. People who have normal fears think they have a phobia, and those with a phobia too often think they are just being afraid and being irrational, and so don’t get help. Recognizing which group you belong to is extremely important. There are different kinds of fears, and they are rational to varying degrees.
- Things you don’t like. People like to say they are afraid of spiders or bugs, but for the most part, they just don’t like them because they’re gross. However, if these fears take over your life, more than just the “‘eww’ factor” is at play.
- Things that are good to be afraid of. This requires context. If you are in the water, it is good to be afraid of sharks, or of bears in the woods, or be afraid of losing your job. These fears cause you to plan and take care, and to avoid stupid situations. If you are genuinely terrified of sharks when you’re on dry land in Kansas, this is probably a phobia.
- Rational fears expressed irrationally. It is okay to be afraid of the dark–bad things can happen. It’s okay to be afraid of public speaking–it’s nerve-wracking and can lead to social embarrassment. It’s okay to be afraid of nuclear war–if it happens, it is a bad scene. But when these lead to acute anxiety, depression, seclusion, and acting on these constant fears, then we might be looking at a phobia.
I knew it was getting really bad before our vacation. My wife and I had a Midwest trip planned, in which we’d travel to Mackinac Island, a historic spot where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan meet. To get to the town with the ferry, you have to cross the straits at the Mackinac Bridge, a gorgeous suspension bridge that is among the longest in the world. Even looking at pictures online made me terrified, and I had terrible dreams about the trip, which I was otherwise looking forward to. As we approached the Bridge, as I spotted it through the fog and mist of the early spring day, I began to panic, and had to pull over, nearly in tears.
Understanding Phobias and Treating Them
A phobia, as we’ve seen, is very similar to a fear, except that it has become overwhelming, and can interfere with the quality of your life. It can seize you at any time, and the closer you are to the source of this fear, the more intense it becomes. Proximity isn’t needed for a trigger, though. Even thinking about your phobia can cause you to curl up inside. The worst part is that the thoughts can come unbidden.
So you have to ask yourself if you might really have a phobia, or just a fear. Are you paralyzingly afraid of heights, or do you just get a shudder of awe and fear when looking out the plane window, as so many of us do? Do you want someone else to take care of the spider, or can you literally not go into the house until it’s been removed, and even then you wake up all night looking for more? It’s a difficult line to discern–they shade into each other, and if you aren’t sure, it may be a phobia.
When phobias become this bad, it is time to seek help. A licensed, residential facility can help you understand the roots of your phobia, help you learn why you are afraid, and help guide you to a place where the fear doesn’t have to control your life.
I thought it could be tied to many things. I thought that it could be fear of losing control. It could be tied to the fleeting nature of man’s designs, of the rust and impermanence of bridges symbolizing that all we do will eventually crumble. It could be a very specific and acute fear of heights. What I never thought was that I needed help, or that help would do anything. I was wrong.
At Bridges to Recovery, we treat multiple anxiety disorders, including phobias. Our clients receive compassionate and expert care at one of our two comforting and welcoming residential facilities. The road to recovery starts here–contact us today to take that first step.