High Anxiety: Crossing Tappan Zee can trigger overwhelming fear

By Theresa Juva-Brown and Khurram Saeed, THE JOURNAL NEWS

For decades, when Renee Stala had to cross the Tappan Zee Bridge, she was hit with waves of nausea and an overwhelming feeling of dread.

“I would go across that bridge feeling like I would have a heart attack. … It was awful, awful, awful,” recalled the 59-year-old from Nanuet, who finally overcame her fear several years ago with the help of a therapist.

At 15,998-feet long and with narrow lanes, low railings and a sloping roadway, the Tappan Zee has been a longtime nemesis for people with a fear of bridges. For Stala, the Tappan Zee was the worst.

“There is no shoulder, so if you think you are going to get sick or have a panic attack there is no place to move over,” Stala said. “And the way the span goes, it seems like it goes forever. You can’t see the other end of it.”

Its modern twin-span replacement — which will be completed in 2018 — will be the widest bridge in the world and include features such as emergency lanes that could quell the nerves of some skittish drivers. Many of them fear being trapped on the bridge or unable to pull over, so “with a breakdown lane and a pedestrian area it will be so much better,” Stala said.

But those features could heighten the anxiety of other nervous drivers, said Martin Seif, associate director of the Anxiety & Phobia Treatment Center at White Plains Hospital.

“There are a significant number of people who get a thought in their mind like, ‘What if I smash into the car next to me?’ A larger, busier highway or bridge tends to trigger those thoughts,” he said.

The first span is to open in 2016, but its opening will not dramatically alter the driving experience for people with anxiety. That’s because the shoulders next to the travel lanes will be used for traffic until the second span opens in 2018.

Experts say, however, that the core of people’s fear is more about losing control than the actual structure.

Christine Ziegler, director of the Hudson Valley Center for Cognitive Therapy in Upper Nyack, said the new bridge design could help some people, but won’t alleviate their “fear of fear.”

“For many, it is not the particular features of the bridge that cause the anxiety, but rather the thoughts, feelings and sensations they experience in anticipation of crossing the bridge,” Ziegler said. “They worry that if they start to panic, they will be desperate to escape the situation.”

“Phobic people tend to have fantasies that they will drive off the bridge or lose control and wind up in the water,” agreed Dr. Fred Newman, director of the phobia and anxiety center at White Plains Hospital. “Very few are afraid that the bridge is going to fall down — they are afraid of themselves.”

One might assume that people terrified of crossing the Tappan Zee would want to drive across as quickly as possible, but that’s not always the case, said Judy Biderman, a therapist from Mahwah, N.J., who has treated numerous people with a fear of the Tappan Zee. About a quarter of her patients would rather be caught in traffic on a bridge than drive across at highway speed, she said.

“There are people who want to be on a road or on a bridge where they are boxed in because that urge to run is so strong,” she said. “Having so many people around is like a cushion. They feel safe.”

Ziegler said she has not incorporated the new bridge into her treatment since the full bridge isn’t expected to open for five years.

“I am hopeful that our patients will overcome their bridge phobia long before the new bridge is built,” she said.