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The Road To Fort Worth
How To Conquer Driving Anxiety - A Letter
First, it is essential to understand that a panic attack results
from the same mechanism that protects us from actual danger in
the environment. Areas in the limbic system fire spontaneously
and send a signal to the prefrontal cortex, which interprets the
signal as danger and sends signals to other areas of the brain to
prepare us physiologically to respond, to either fight or escape
the environmental danger. Heart rate increases; digestion shuts
down; adrenalin flow increases. The power of that response has
been demonstrated by people able to lift automobiles to save
There is a misinterpretation in the prefrontal cortex during an
anxiety attack. It interprets the signal from the limbic system
that danger is present, when in realty, it isn't. For some
unknown reason, it doesn't consider what the other senses observe
(no danger), but proceeds to prepare the body to escape.
Essentially, the limbic system is over-stimulated, and the
prefrontal cortex misinterprets the information it receives. The
escalation of panic is due to a feedback loop between these two
areas of the brain that continue in motion for a time.
When we are facing real danger in the environment, all of the
excess energy that was produced by the body is used. Then, when
the danger has passed (e.g. after we shoot the tiger that was
leaping toward us or scurry up a tree to safety), we feel a sense
of relief and return to a normal metabolism. When there is no
danger, all of the excess energy is still present, and the many
sensations produced by the flight or fight response result in
Therefore, what we have to learn how to do is calm ourselves and
return to a normal state of equilibrium.
There are two ways to do this, to slow down the response. One is
to learn how to breathe deeply and slowly in order to calm our
racing heart, which will slow down the other responses.
Additionally, we can learn how to divert our attention from the
anxiety to a more pleasant state of mind. Visualization (guided
imagery, self hypnosis) will help us to do this. Breathing
exercises, visualization and yoga helped me to calm myself during
There is an additional dynamic with panic disorder that keeps it
active. We remember the panic attack and attempt to avoid having
a re-occurrence of the episode. After having a few panic attacks,
we learn to avoid the places where they occurred. It's a defense
mechanism that is benevolent, in a way, since it's trying to
protect us. This secondary fear, anticipatory anxiety, can be
dampened with cognitive therapy.
First, we learn how to quit telling ourselves that a panic attack
will be the inevitable result of going to a certain place
including malls, highways and enclosed places. Certainly, it may
happened, but we'll never learn how to overcome our fear without
going to and/or doing what we fear. Control is a huge issue in
PD. We don't ever lose control: we only think that we will, and
that misconception has to be dismissed.
Second, we tend to keep PD a secret so people don't think we're
as crazy as we feel. Find someone you trust and talk to them
about your problem. A problem shared often becomes half a
I took quite a while getting to the point, which is your road
1. Prior to the trip, do breathing exercises, then visualize a
pleasant event or place. A half hour, twice a day, will do
wonders. A little exercise or yoga helps too. The idea here is
that you'll learn how to transfer those feelings when you need to
2. Try to dismiss any secondary fear you have about the trip.
Now, you probably see the trip in its entirety, 6 hours on the
road, 300 miles. Oh, my God. Oh no! Be dramatic and laugh at
yourself. You'll simply be pulling onto the highway, driving from
exit to exit. If you need to pull over and take a break, allow
yourself to do so. Do some deep breathing and visualize. Before
you know it, 3 hours will have elapsed, and you'll have several
exits behind you. Take it a step at a time.
3. It's not abnormal to be a little afraid of driving on the
highway. We're encased by a couple thousand pounds of steel with
guided missiles flowing around us. Keep your distance, and drive
at a reasonable speed.
4. You have the great opportunity on this trip to learn that
feeling safe and feeling in control is a feeling that exists
within you, not anything associated with a place. Look at the
trip as a challenge, not a problem.
Drive safely, have a great time and let me know about something
beautiful or funny that happened along the way.
All the best!
Copyright ©2012 Michael Jackson Smith
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