I used to be one of the many people with dystonia who experience panic attacks, and it felt like torture. One of my former triggers was driving, even around my own town. Forget long distances. I used to panic if I wasn’t the first car at a red light and didn’t have a way to turn off the road. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack or pass out. My heart would pound and my hands would sweat. I was claustrophobic and felt weak, with my legs trembling and my breathing shallow.
After a few years, I had to do something about it. I couldn’t live like that anymore. If I wanted to deal with the anxiety and live a fuller life outside my home, I knew I had to face my fears head on.
For the next couple of weeks, I put myself in situations that created anxiety and panic. While previously I would actually turn off the road and make a U-turn to avoid a red light, I now purposely drove in congested areas of town during afternoon rush hour so I would get caught at red lights and slow moving traffic.
Within two weeks of exposing myself to heavy traffic and red lights, my panic attacks ended. It was a process, but I managed to overcome them in a shorter period of time than I expected. I overcame something in two weeks I lived with for years! What a relief!
Then, it was time to tackle my fear of bridges. I decided to start with a bridge in my town I had avoided it for years, even as a passenger.
The first few times I drove over the bridge by myself I was dizzy, my hands were sopping wet and my body was trembling. I felt like I was floating on top of my seat and had white knuckles from gripping the steering wheel so hard.
I did my best to focus on the music, but a minute trip over the bridge seemed like 20.
Worrying about the return trip, I missed my turn-around exit. I found myself on a highway travelling at speeds I hadn’t driven in 10 years. My anxiety skyrocketed trying to keep up with other cars. I finally came to the next exit and had to park for a little while to calm down before I got back on the road.
Anxiety crept back in when I got back on the highway and onto the bridge again. When I got across safely I wanted to get home immediately. Instead, I stopped myself, did some slow, rhythmic breathing, turned around and drove back over the bridge again.
I did this every day for the next week.
Each time I was on the bridge and the highway I had anxiety, but it became less and less every day. My confidence grew, which gradually reduced my anxiety. After about a dozen times over a period of a week, I no longer had anxiety driving on this bridge or any other bridge. Nor did I have anxiety being on the highway.
The more significant part of this experience was the boost of confidence. My world opened up, and I began doing other things I had been avoiding. Life seemed exciting and interesting again. Instead of worrying about all the bad things that might happen before I did an activity, I started to look forward to them. A huge burden was lifted. In this way, I felt I could start living again.
Editor’s note: This story is based on one person’s experiences and shouldn’t be taken as professional advice. To learn more information about overcoming anxiety and panic attacks, visit the Anxiety and Depression Association of America or consult your doctor.