July 18, 2012 at 9:38 AM ET
Crossing that bridge when you come to it is terrifying when you have a fear of bridges.
Known as gephyrophobia (pronounced jeff-i-ro-fo-bia), people with an intense fear of driving over a bridge -- or for some, the mere thought or anticipation of it -- brings on a panic attack. Their hearts race and palms sweat, and they may also have trouble breathing and feel light-headed.
If driving, their hands death-grip the steering wheel. They worry about losing control of the car and veering off the bridge, or of becoming so freaked out that they stop traffic with no shoulder of the road to pull into.
Gephyrophobes are "not worried about the bridge collapsing, they're worried about themselves collapsing," says Jean Ratner, a social worker who directs the Center for Travel Anxiety in Bethesda, Md. She says a bridge phobia may stem from a fear of heights, and what's at the root of the problem is being scared of having a panic attack and not being able to manage it.
This anxiety disorder usually has a sudden onset and tends to strike extremely good drivers, suggests Ratner. It often catches a person by surprise because this was someone who previously had no trouble crossing bridges. Then one day, a panicky feeling occurs on a tall bridge, typically on the first half of it as the car is climbing up the arch.
Both the length and the height of the bridge can freak out sufferers, who may drive miles out of the way to find an alternative route or make excuses for their travel-related anxieties. A dread of bridges is more likely when the person is doing the driving, but may also occur as a passenger.
Although less common than a fear of flying, bridge phobia is treatable in 6 to 9 months, suggests Ratner. She starts with office-based sessions to develop relaxation strategies that target the symptoms of panic, such as a slower breathing pattern and looking straight ahead. Then these behavioral methods might be practiced in a car on local roads.
Next Ratner might accompany that person while they walk across a bridge. Very gradually, the person works up to walking halfway across alone.
As a person slowly builds up more courage, then Ratner will discuss driving over a small bridge in a car with her sitting in the front seat. Then they may attempt a bigger bridge together. The next session may find Ratner in the back seat, then eventually to her in a separate car trailing behind the fearful driver.
Some people may take a mild tranquilizer to help them get over their bridge jitters, or carry it in a purse or wallet in case of panic.
Of the phobias she treats, Ratner says this is a hard one. With a fear of flying, people realize they're not piloting the plane. But with a fear of bridges, the driver is in charge and that person often feels an incredible sense of responsibility especially if other family members are depending on this individual to transport them safely.
Some bridges have drive-over services for the skittish. Nervous motorists can arrange to have someone else shuttle your car while you close your eyes or cower in the back seat. Some places charge for the servicewhile others do it for free.
If drive-over services helps people get where they want to go, Ratner says she's very open them. But working with a therapist who treats phobias can be a bridge to getting over these fears for good.