This Is Anxiety

I was, just to name a few [phobias], afraid of going into the movies, of not sitting in an aisle seat, of not knowing exactly how to get out of somewhere, of being in a locked car, of seat belts, of not having access to drinking water, of pools, of using airplane bathrooms, of using bathroom stalls that I couldn't crawl out of, of driving out of my neighborhood, of heights, of swallowing pills, of open spaces, of busy places, of distancing myself from the car in parking lots, and so on, and so forth. I’m over them now. For the most part, I'm not aware of how it happened. But in the case of tunnels and bridges, I accidentally came up with what turned out to be a winning strategy for me, which I'd like to share. Hopefully others will benefit from my experience.

For many years, I lived in a South American capital, which has a long, winding highway down to the airport. This road also has a very long tunnel at the bottom of a prolonged slope. For years I never thought twice about going through it until one day when it suddenly loomed at me like a dark mouth waiting for me as I approached it. I swerved off the road, with palpitations. I was so confused and felt ridiculous, but the truth was that there was no way I was going into the tunnel, and I knew it. I had a real problem on my hands.

Fortunately, I had pulled over into what was the parking area of a National Guard station. The officers that noticed waited to see what I would do. An idea occurred to me, so I rolled down the window and summoned one of them. It went like this: “Hello. How are you? I have a dreadful fear of tunnels. I really can't go in there. Do you think one of you could ride through with me, just to the other side?” I could see they had never had such a request, but no matter. I'm sure I looked as desperate as I felt. That's how my strategy started.

Whenever I went to the airport to pick someone up, I would pull over right at the entrance, go through the whole routine again and was always lucky enough to have a National Guardsman who was willing to do the part. Of course, I'd talk up a storm during the two-minute ride. Silence would have been unbearable. I didn't know it at the time, but I was onto something important for me.

It so happened that one day there was only one guard who could leave the post, and he had a motorcycle. He couldn't ride with me. Dilemma! "Would it be okay with if I followed behind his bike?" he asked. I had no choice except to agree with the arrangement. Once inside the tunnel, I started to panic right away and intuitively began talking out loud to myself, but then it evolved into an imaginary conversation with the guy on the bike ahead of me. I was doing the talking for both. I felt okay. I believed my own lie.

This has since worked for me in tunnels and on bridges: I stick close behind a car that is carrying my "friends," with whom I talk up a storm for the duration of the ordeal, and I firmly believe one of them will help me if I ever have a problem. To be truthful, sometimes I just drive along and don't even have the need to do it anymore.

Gilda Tuttlebee
Boston, Massachusetts


It wasn't until the last year or so that Marvel portrayed Dr. Bruce Banner ("The Hulk") as someone who accepts that his condition needs to be managed, rather someone who has a disease that needs to be treated. His story then moves from the Hulk, who is pursued by every single government entity in the world, to Bruce Banner, who works as a scientist for the government; the Hulk is summoned when the government needs his powerful capabilities to deal with the threat of the day.

To bring the Hulk story full-circle: I used to be extremely upset at myself for lashing out at people during many anxiety-driven outbursts. I would feel really bad after each episode—creating more anxiety in the process—until it all cascaded into another explosive episode. What made it worse is that I was totally aware of what was happening, but was not in control of the situation.

Once I accepted that I have anxiety and have to live with it, I learned several things that made my life a lot easier:

1. I realized that I wasn't the only one who had anxiety problems. Everyone has some form of anxiety, and it manifests differently from one person to another. Knowing that everyone has to deal with anxiety makes it easier because I don't feel so alone in facing the condition.

2. I learned to forgive myself for my actions stemming from the anxiety. Instead of focusing on a complete prevention of the outbursts, I focus my efforts on two things. The first is why the outburst occurred the way it did (and how to recognize the stimuli that leads to outburst in the first place); the second is what to do to recover from the outburst if it does occur. Think of it as a typhoon management system: you use experience to figure out when a typhoon is coming, and you rebuild immediately as soon as the typhoon passes.

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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