I used to think I had a problem with bridges.
Then I learned that we can talk ourselves into panic when we’re safe and into calm when we’re in real danger.
I live in Pennsylvania, close to Delaware, where I can easily enjoy proximity to tax-free shopping, Philadelphia, and my beloved Jersey shore. I love my view of the bridge to New Jersey from my neighborhood and the opportunities to proclaim, “I can see New Jersey from my windshield,” throughout my area.
So it’s ironic that I made crossing the bridge to New Jersey a source of so much anxiety for so long.
Anxiety Amid Calm
I have no clue what prompted it, but after several years of driving to the shore every weekend for work, I started to become anxious as I crossed the bridge, but only on the way home. I was never truly unsafe on the bridge, but the story I told myself about my anxiety sparked physical symptoms that likely made me less safe than I was.
I don’t have the chance to do that commute as often these days, but a trip across a different bridge taught me just how much my “bridge issue” was really a story in my mind.
Calm Amid Danger
I’d never experienced a fiercer thunderstorm, certainly not when I was on the road with no safe place to pull over.
Thunder echoed around the buildings in the city. As I reached the crest of the bridge, I could barely see through the windshield, let alone to the front of the car – except when the lightning provided a 360 view of just how far down it was to the river.
I figured I was more likely to pass out from fear than be hit by another driver reckless enough to be out in that storm, so as scary as it was to keep going, stopping was terrifying, so on I went.
Loosening my death grip on the steering wheel, I regulated my breathing by reciting, “always safe, no mistakes” and “accept, surrender.” I may have shouted, “Jesus, take the wheel,” a bunch of times, too.
When I finally got across the bridge and on the highway, soon on dry land, the storm lifted to the point that I could soon see the moon. Are you kidding me?
Instead of fueling my fear with thoughts about what could have happened, I spent the rest of the drive home telling myself what I self-coaching ninja I was for navigating the storm, literally and metaphorically, so darn well. It wasn’t until I got out of the car and my knees buckled so hard I almost fell in the driveway that I realized how much adrenaline was still in my system.
And how well I had managed a truly dangerous situation. With my thinking.
Positive Navigation Through Any Storm
On all those trips home from New Jersey, I was never truly unsafe; my thinking fueled my anxiety.
In that thunderstorm, I was in real danger, and my thinking helped me to keep going.
You don’t need to wait until you’re terrified to drive across a bridge from a place you love to learn to manage your thoughts.
And you don’t have to drive across a bridge through what feels like the world’s most demented car wash, with an epic light show, to benefit from learning to stay calm no matter what.
Staying present is one of the most valuable things I’ve learned through coaching and one of the most powerful things I help clients learn for themselves.
Because you never know when a bridge – or a storm – will crop up and pulling over won’t be an option.
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image: Pixabay; used with permission