I’ll never forgot that first time it happen!! I’d done that journey a hundred times and then all of a sudden it just hit me....”I couldn’t breath, my heart was pounding in my ears, I really thought I was going mad!! You must think I’m ridiculous??” And since then I’ve just got worse, now even short trips leave me shaky, breathless and feeling overwhelmed.
But of course I didn’t think Jenny was ridiculous, I’ve heard similar accounts of panic attacks many times before. So why is it that someone can do the same journey so many times and all of a sudden that mundane trip becomes a source of extreme anxiety?
And how does a single panic attack progress into a full blown phobia? Well part of the problem was what came next! After her initial anxiety inducing trip Jenny did what many people do, she started avoiding going on motorways at all costs, instead taking lengthily detours and sticking to minor roads which she perceived to be safe. Even when her partner offered to drive her to show her that there was nothing to be afraid of she refused, so powerful was her belief that motorways made her anxious!
I explained to Jenny that it was her belief in the inevitability of becoming anxious when driving on motorways which was making her anxious, not motorways at all! And that each time she avoided a motorway situation, she only
reinforced that belief, effectively making her phobic response stronger. One thing Jenny struggled with was the origin of her phobia.
Why seemly out of nowhere had she developed such an all-consuming phobia? I explained to Jenny that although for many people a phobia does indeed develop after being exposed to or experiencing a traumatic situation, that’s not always the case. So then I asked the question that held the key to where it all began. “Was there anything happening around the time that your phobia began?” At this point, Jenny began to well up, she explained that after a short illness, her father had passed away. It was rather unexpected as he had been getting better.
So then I explained to Jenny that although often the source of a phobia is obvious such as a car accident for example, for her it had been that in that time of acute anxiety and grief that her mind had simply placed the two situations together, thus perceiving motorway driving to be the cause of her anxiety and so something to be feared and avoided. This had led to the development of fear structures within Jenny’s memory network, meaning that each time she even considered going on a motorway those fear structures were activated leading to an overwhelming anxiety response of which the pinnacle was an anxiety attack as Jenny had described earlier in our conversation. Every time she avoided or even escaped from a motorway situation as she had on one extremely brief journey some time ago (where ten minutes into a journey where a friend was driving she’d insisted they pull off the motorway and take the quieter roads). I explained to Jenny, that every time she escaped or avoided a motorway situation she only strengthened those fear structures worsen her phobia.
So how did Jenny overcome her fear of motorways?
To enable Jenny to overcome her fear of motorways we used a technique called systematic desensitisation using a form of imaginal exposure to desensitise the fear structures within her brain. We also incorporated various (In Vivo) real life exposure exercises and Socratic questioning. These enabled Jenny to alter the belief that she held which was that motorways were somehow dangerous and so best avoided essentially deconditioning those fear networks within her memory system.
It’s been nearly a year since Jenny finished her treatment and I was delighted to receive an e-mail from her recently telling me how well she’s doing and offering to share her story. So if like Jenny, you have a motorway or driving phobia, why not get in touch and see how I can help you.
Article by Louise Phillips