When Panic Attacks in the Lehigh Tunnel
Mapquest said it was a three hour trip. But I knew better; it would take me nearly five hours to get home for my Christmas break from school.
Was I a slow driver? No, not particularly. Was there a chance of snow? Not at all; blue skies all around. Was I planning on taking a two-hour break at one of the turnpike’s service plazas? No; a fast-food meal there would take twenty minutes, tops. Was I banking on getting lost? No, I’m one of those map nerds who enjoys aiding lost friends via telephone with the full-sized map of Pennsylvania that I (seriously!) have tacked to my bedroom wall.
The three-hour trip from grad school in Newark, Delaware to my hometown of Kingston, Pennsylvania was going to take five hours because I couldn’t stand driving through the Lehigh Tunnel. It’s a long tunnel just north of Allentown that carves a pathway through Blue Mountain for I-476, the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s northeast extension. It’s about one mile long – which, for me, was one mile too long. I carefully planned the most convenient (read: not convenient at all) detour around the tunnel and arrived home, five hours later, for the holidays.
Just one month earlier, I was heading home for Thanksgiving and approaching the Lehigh Tunnel. I had just spent five long months weaning myself off of Paxil (and I was only about halfway finished!). It was a drug that had promised the world for my panic attacks. Instead, it gave me a flurry of uncomfortable side effects that got worse and worse the longer I stayed on it. So, I decided to dump the daily meds and to take up learning some cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques to quash my anxiety level. I practiced progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing, and I tried to avoid making panic-mountains from mere anxiety-molehills. (And I tried to avoid writing groan-worthy clichés, but that clearly didn’t work, did it?)
But the CBT techniques didn’t always work. The turnpike made me nervous no matter what – each exit was spaced roughly twenty long miles apart. I was always worried about panicking, having my car break down, or experiencing some other malady with no easy way of escaping to safety. On that November day, I drove closer and closer to the tunnel, and removed my sunglasses like the road signs told me. Ten seconds until entry. I turned on my headlights. Five seconds until entry.
“Oh my God, I can’t do this!” I suddenly decided as my car slipped into the darkness of the narrow tunnel. Too late! My heart started to pound fiercely against my chest; I couldn’t turn back…or left, or right. The typical course of panic-related thoughts ran through my head – and with each thought, a new physical symptom appeared:
“My heartbeat is scaring me,” I thought. Enter the cold sweat.
“Why am I so cold? And sweaty? Am I going to pass out?” I thought. Enter the lightheadedness.
“Oh God, I’m lightheaded…I’m going to pass out,” I declared to myself. Enter dizziness.
I was only about fifteen seconds into the sixty-second tunnel, and I was taking huge gasps of air and rolling down my car windows. I felt like I couldn’t get enough oxygen. The tiny strip of dull fluorescent lights that lined the tunnel grew dimmer, and I grew even more frightened as I imagined what would happen if I did pass out cold behind the wheel. My car’s alignment was off; I would probably hit the wall of the tunnel. Then, cars and trucks would unknowingly hit me from behind. I’d be squashed. Twenty seconds in; forty to go.
By this time, I was shaking and my heart had begun throwing in a few palpitations. My limbs were vibrating; because of this, I could barely keep my right foot on the gas pedal. I wanted out, and I wanted out now. Thirty seconds to go. My toes and fingers began to tingle, and I “knew”, by some perversion of intuition, that I was going to pass out. I prepared by slowing down my car to about 45 miles per hour and waiting to black out. Twenty seconds to go. I waited, shaking and gasping.
Ten seconds. I could see daylight within reach.
Five seconds. I put on my right blinker.
Out. I pulled over onto a gravel shoulder, opened the door, and nearly fell out of my car with awkward and clumsy limbs.
For the next year, I stayed away from the tunnel. I tried to convince myself that it was a sound decision. Now that I had gotten Paxil fully out of my system and was no longer undergoing the physical brunt of withdrawal, I wasn’t as physiologically revved up. My body and my mind were both calmer, and as a result, I was having fewer panic attacks. The attacks became less forceful, and I liked being able to get through a week (sometimes even a whole month!) without one.
But the tunnel still scared the living daylights out of me; I enjoyed living a relatively panic-free life, so I steered clear of it. Beginning with that 5-hour drive home for my Christmas break, I became the Queen of Detours. Heading north to my hometown, I would get off the turnpike right in the heart of Allentown, drive through congested city highway traffic, and even spend a good few miles on a stop-and-go road littered with red lights until I finally came to the next turnpike onramp. Heading south, I would exit the turnpike at Mahoning Valley and take one-lane country roads that wound around Blue Mountain and through small towns with 25 mile-per-hour speed limits. I falsely convinced myself, temporarily, that these detours were not a royal pain in the neck.
Eventually, I became sick of circumnavigating the Lehigh Tunnel. I knew that avoiding a panic trigger was bad news in the psychological sense – when you avoid a trigger because it scares you, it escalates on your own personal threat level and becomes even more panic-inducing – so I knew I had to find a way back into that tunnel. People don’t often understand that you can’t just “suck it up”, face your fear, and call it a day. It’s a very slow process if you want to do things right. I recalled a television show on some science channel about a young girl who was terribly afraid of spiders. She practiced exposure therapy with a counselor and took very tiny steps: first by drawing a spider on paper, then by looking at a picture of a spider, then by sitting in the same room with a caged spider, and so on. I sought out to do the same thing with the tunnel.
First, I researched the Lehigh Tunnel on the internet. I found pictures of it, read about its construction history, and pinpointed it on a map. Then, I discovered a new therapeutic use for Youtube – I found a video (there are several, actually!) of a drive in first-person perspective through the entirety of the Lehigh Tunnel. I watched it from the comfort of my apartment and tried to notice the physical sensations in my body that cropped up in response to the visual stimuli. Even while sitting at my computer desk, my stomach and chest would tighten, my breathing would grow a bit shallow, and I’d feel adrenaline rushing through my gut. But those feelings didn’t last — I watched the video over and over until it became nauseatingly dull.
Next, I rode along as a passenger in my boyfriend’s car as we drove up to visit our parents for a weekend. This gave me the opportunity to go through the entire length of the tunnel in person, but without the added pressure of driving (and without the fear of dying as a result of a hyperventilation-induced blackout). As we drove through, I made it a point to actually “be there” for the full minute of tunnel-darkness (instead of chiseling away the time by thinking of other things). I was still nervous, of course, and my heart was doing jumping jacks. Even so, I mindfully noticed the dirty white tile walls, the color of the lights (an awful, dim orange), the huge ventilation fans attached to the ceiling, and the way the daylight at the end of the tunnel starts as a pinpoint and grows larger and larger.
My next step in the exposure process was actually driving through the Lehigh Tunnel. Soon after my boyfriend and I had hopped onto the turnpike to drive back from our weekend trip, I told him to pull over onto the side of the road. I wanted to be in the driver’s seat. I wanted to take the next step that I’d assigned to myself – driving through the tunnel with a trusted passenger. He was nervous (and so was I!), but we both buckled up and I pulled out into 70 mile-per-hour traffic. My throat was tight and my head was buzzing as I entered the mile-long tunnel.
“Wait a minute,” I thought, “Is this anxiety, or excitement? What’s the difference between both of those feelings, anyway? Both can bring upon lightheadedness, a rapid heartbeat, dizzy spells, and cold sweats. Does the body react to anxiety and to excitement in exactly the same way?” I spent nearly my entire sixty seconds of tunnel-time trying to answer those questions and before I knew it, I was approaching a wide span of daylight.
Before long, I was driving through the tunnel on my own once again. I’d tell you more, but you’d probably get bored. My subsequent drives through the Lehigh Tunnel quickly became more anti-climactic with each drive, and that’s exactly how I wanted them to be. Mundane, maybe even a bit dull. Sunglasses off, headlights on, ho hum. Sixty seconds of the dark underground, yawn. I was successfully able to re-script my perception from of the tunnel from Threatening Enemy (note those capital letters!) into the innocuous turnpike landmark that it truly is.
And that’s not to say that my tunnel-related anxiety symptoms have disappeared – I still get nervous, I grip the wheel tightly, and I feel the familiar rush of adrenaline in my gut when I enter. But now, my body and mind aren’t in cahoots against my sense of self-control. My mental symptoms of fear no longer feed off of my physical symptoms of fear (and vice versa) in an unending loop, and I am thankful for that.
And, let’s face it: three hours of drive-time is so much quicker than five!
Beretsky, S. (2018). When Panic Attacks in the Lehigh Tunnel. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 3, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/when-panic-attacks-in-the-lehigh-tunnel/