WASHINGTON – If driving over bridges makes you panic, you’re not alone.
Maryland Transportation Authority police drove more than 1,400 people over state bridges in 1994, up more than 100 from the year before, said authority spokeswoman Lori A. Vidil.
Nearly all requests came from motorists unable to cross the state’s most formidable structure, the 4.3 mile-long William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge. It spans the Chesapeake Bay, connecting Anne Arundel and Queen Anne’s counties.
“It’s a pretty imposing bridge,” Vidil said. “You can’t just hold your breath.”
Police also assisted with more than 40 requests last year to traverse the Gov. Nice Memorial, Hatem Memorial and Francis Scott Key bridges, Vidil said.
Fear of crossing bridges, while related to acrophobia, the fear of heights, is actually its own separate phobia, said Dr. Donald Dossey, a phobia expert who runs a clinic in Asheville, N.C.
A fear of heights is much more prevalent, Dossey said, but a fear of bridges is “not an uncommon thing.”
Dr. Robert D. Coursey, a clinical psychologist and University of Maryland psychology professor, said while the seriousness of the problem can be judged by how much it hampers one’s life, the key is to address it head-on.
“If you avoid it, you’re letting the anxiety master you,” he said.
Some, like Nadine Epstein, 38, a writer from the Adams Morgan area of the District, dramatically alter their travel plans to avoid bridges and certain highways.
“I’m not interested in driving over the Bay bridge or the Delaware bridge,” said Epstein, who walks to work. “I get very nervous and I’d rather not put myself through that.”
While she does travel extensively, Epstein is careful to plan ahead. “Before I travel,” she said, “I get out my Rand McNally, and check for major rivers and highly elevated highways.”
If someone else is driving the car, she said, there is no problem.
But on occasion, when she is driving, Epstein is faced with no choice but to cross a bridge.
“I sing. I fiddle with the radio. None of it really works. Afterward, I’m exhausted,” she said. “It takes a tremendous amount of mental effort.”
Having worked with a phobia clinic in Michigan, Epstein believes her bridge fear is connected with a fear of heights.
She traces the phobia to an incident when she was 13, and traveling with her family in the Chiapas Mountains in Mexico.
The family was caught in a hurricane, and the trailer the family car was pulling teetered over a cliff. The weight of the car kept it from falling over the edge, she said.
Dossey said he has counseled individuals whose bridge phobia is an entirely separate phenomena.
“They can fly, they go hiking on steep cliffs, but bridges are a whole different story,” Dossey said.
For Diane Bartko, 38, of Hammond, Ind., a deep fear of bridges began when traveling home after the funeral of her grandmother in 1984.
She said a wave of panic hit her as she drove across a bridge in Hammond after the funeral. “I felt such an incredible panic,” Bartko said. “It was like Jimmy Stewart in `Vertigo.’ The bridge went long and then it went short. I got white-knuckled.”
Within a month, the attacks she experienced on that bridge struck her on any bridge, she said. “I think it’s more connected with separation.”
Through years of therapy, Bartko said she has managed to overcome a good deal of her fear.
“There were 22 overpasses in my area I travelled on before the phobia,” she said. “Now I’m back on 15 of them.”
Both Coursey and Dossey agree that treatment that trains individuals to relax in the face of their fear is most successful.
“It’s the old Pavlovian conditioning model,” Dossey said.
“They [the phobic] create pictures of disaster in their minds. We train them to control their physical feelings no matter what they’re thinking.”