Get Out of the Darkroom

“Fear is that little darkroom where negatives are developed.” Michael Pritchard 

Fear: False Evidence Appearing Real   I think about this helpful acronym whenever I come face to face with my fears….which can often swamp me into a state of visceral anxiety—complete with a racing heart, sweaty palms, a churning stomach. My fears fall into the same category as many other folks: fear of bridges, fear of tunnels, fear of failure, and fear of rejection. Those fears cover a pretty broad swath of life and could severely limit me if I let them. I’d like to talk about how I overcame a particularly debilitating fear that was keeping me from a lot of adventures and enjoyment: the fear of driving over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

I actually thought I had conquered this fear several years ago when I visited California and cruised over the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County. I was excited to be there, but more than that, I was thrilled that I could drive over the bridge alone and not feel sick or have palms so sweaty that I couldn’t grip the steering wheel. With that fear conquered, I figured I could drive over any bridge, leaving that fear abandoned and powerless. But I was wrong.

Ann at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge
Ann at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge

When I drove over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge a few years ago to attend a writers’ conference on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, I was shocked by my reaction. Suddenly, my palms were sweating, my heart was racing, and my mind was filled with awful scenarios. Crashing into the car in front of me. Driving over the side of the bridge into the wintery waters of the Chesapeake. Being pinned between two cars with no escape but the water.

Once I got to the other side, I was somewhat relieved until I blurted out, “Shit, I just have to turn around and do this again in about five hours.” I confided my fears to a friend who offered to ride with me on the way home. Her company and her constant chatter as we drove over the 4.3 mile span of the bridge got me to the other side, but I still struggled mightily with anxiety and catastrophic scenarios. Even though my fears severely limited many of my weekend plans, I avoided driving over the bridge again until this past July.

Determined to overcome my fear about driving over the bridge, I got my chance when my friend and I took at trip to visit the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cambridge, Maryland, in late July. We took her car, but she asked me to drive over the bridge because she was afraid. Here was my chance to deal with my fear.

I recalled reading that visualizing is a powerful way to be able to successfully perform something you consider challenging. Your mind can’t tell if what you are visualizing is real or imaginary, so in essence, you are giving yourself positive practice experiences whenever you visualize success. Knowing I would probably have to drive over the bridge twice, I began visualizing my success every morning for a few days during my meditation practice.

I saw myself with my hands on the wheel and I said over and over, “I am calm and safe. “ I saw myself driving over the bridge on a sunny day and focusing on the car directly in front of me. “I cross the bridge safely and I feel happy and calm,” I recited over and over in my mind. If negative thoughts came up during the day, I returned to my mantra of being happy, safe, and calm.

As I approached the bridge, I swallowed a few drops of Kava Kava, an herbal supplement I frequently use when I feel anxiety creeping up. I recited my mantra, paid the toll, and moved onto the bridge. I kept my eyes only on the car in front of me and did not look out onto the water or at the long span stretching in front of me. My hands stayed dry and the butterflies in my stomach were few and far between. My friend chatted all the way over the bridge and they we high-fived once I made it to the other side. I did the same thing a few days later on the way home.

Success! I count myself as successful even though I still felt a little nervous, and my hands still sweated a little on the way home. My anxiety was very manageable. But best of all, I know I had used some powerful tools to overcome my fears. My fears were like a dragon, but as Noela Evans reminds us, “Challenge is like a dragon with a gift in its mouth. Tame the dragon, and the gift is yours.”

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