JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – For so many, our city of seven bridges boasts beautiful scenic drives throughout Jacksonville.
But for some, like me -- these fantastic views bring anxiety and fear. Knowing there are so many other people who have this fear, is what prompted me to look for a solution for my fear of bridges. Dr. Janice Pimentel is a local psychologist with Baptist Health, who said there are several kinds of bridge phobias brought on by different things, like a past, traumatic experience, or, like mine -- comes simply from irrational thoughts like, “I’m going to fall off this bridge”.
Before my therapy session with Dr. Pimentel, I showed her what happens to me when I drive over the Matthews Bridge near Downtown Jacksonville.
“Oh, Joy!” she winces, while watching a video of me behind the wheel, driving over the bridge I’ve managed to avoid for longer than a decade. “I promise you will not have to go through that again,” she stated.
Knowing I almost caused an accident the last time I crossed this bridge, we asked the Florida Highway Patrol to help monitor things during our video shoot. Dr. Pimentel watched my heart rate quickly rise as my photographer and I approached the bridge. Then my breathing turned shallow before sounding like full-fledged panic. The experience was so frightening for me, it made me shake and cry -- convinced I would fall off the bridge at any second. The height and view from the bridge seem to spark my anxiety, and send my heart rate through the roof as the heart monitor I was wearing showed. Even answering Dr. Pimentel’s questions about my bridge fear caused my heart rate to increase.
“I’m going to give you some fixes for that,” she said with confidence.
Dr. Pimentel had me lie down, and several times take in a deep breath from my diaphragm, up to my lungs... hold it a beat or two... then let the air out very slowly through pursed lips while focusing on that process instead of my daily “to-do” list. And to help keep my mind focused, she told me to, “picture the air that you’re bringing in from outside as this cool, crisp, clean, like Caribbean blue oxygen,” she describes. “And then when you get ready to exhale, I want you to picture what you’re pushing out between your lips as this hot, red, anxiety or tension-filled ilk you’re physically removing from your body.”
Using words like “blue” and “red” in my mind when breathing in and out, Dr. Pimentel said would also help keep other words and thoughts from interrupting. But a word of caution when practicing this each night for 10 minutes before bed, she warned. Because the process dilates the blood vessels, it can cause light-headedness during total relaxation and therefore take 9 to 12 seconds before trying to stand up from the lying position. Dr. Pimentel said it’s called “relaxed breathing”, or “diaphragmatic breathing” which she said can help combat most stress. She said after a month of practicing, it can become your body’s “go-to” fix when anxiety strikes.
To meet our story deadline, I only had about two weeks -- half her recommended time -- to practice the breathing technique, which I practiced throughout my days. After those two weeks, Dr. Pimentel rode with me across the Matthews Bridge to see how the strategy would work for me. As Dr. Pimentel quietly talked me through the breathing exercise from the back seat, we were both astonished by just how well the technique worked as I drove.
The heart monitor showed my heart rate was down to my normal relaxed state -- at the top of the bridge.
“Look at you! " Dr. Pimentel exclaimed. “79 ... 75 at the top of the bridge! Woman, you own this! You got it.”
Dr. Pimentel said she has taught this type of breathing to about 98% of her patients for one reason or another -- for everything from spousal communication, anxiety taking tests -- even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Dr. Pimentel is also trained to use hypnosis on patients to curb their anxieties and said it’s very effective. However, she doesn’t like using it because she believes it makes a patient dependent on their therapist.
Teaching the breathing technique and other coping mechanisms, Dr. Pimentel said, “You have some tools in your tool chest that allow you to do that for yourself rather than have to come back into care every time something new shows up in your life.”