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The Road To Fort Worth

Read » Chapter 8: Danville

How To Conquer Driving Anxiety - A Letter

Dear Charlotte,

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 someone.

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 anxiety.

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 an attack.

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 problem.

I took quite a while getting to the point, which is your road trip.

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 calm yourself.

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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