Before crossing one of Illinois’ 26,000 bridges, Colleen Faitz has to brake, yank her seat belt off and open all her car windows. She has gephyrophobia, the fear of bridges.

Update death toll as warranted.


Before crossing one of Illinois’ 26,000 bridges, Colleen Faitz has to brake, yank her seat belt off and open all her car windows.

Doesn’t matter if February winds blow through or passengers laugh. Doesn’t matter that her brother builds bridges for a living. Doesn’t matter that the 24-year-old knows she should know better.

“I avoid them when I can,” she said. “Eventually I’ll go over as long as the windows are open. If the windows aren’t open, I freak and out and start crying and shaking.”

Faitz’s fear of getting stuck in the car and drowning should it plummet from the roadway into the waters below compels her to follow her ritual.

“I know how to swim and everything,” she said. “But when you can’t get out, it doesn’t matter.

So when a truss bridge spanning the Mississippi River along Interstate 35W in Minneapolis collapsed Wednesday evening, dropping cars into the muddy waters 64 feet below, Faitz watched her worst fears play out.

The suburban Chicago woman is one of 19 million Americans who suffer from a phobia, according to the National Institute of Mental Heath.

Hers -- an abnormal and persistent fear of crossing bridges -- is called “gephyrophobia,” from the Greek words for “bridge” and “fear.”

Phobias tend to emerge in adolescence and persist into adulthood, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. They’re twice as common in women as men.

While the fear of bridges is not one of Americans’ top fears – spiders, snakes, flying and heights lead that list – it is fairly common, and it often results from some other phobia, said Joel I. Johnson, a psychologist who runs an anxiety disorder treatment center in Memphis, Tenn.

“I’m not sure what demographics are, but whatever (the number) was yesterday, it’s higher today,” he said.

Many who suffer from gephyrophobia fear the bridge will collapse or they’ll run off the edge of it after fleeting thoughts of suicide, Johnson said.

“Most of the time they’re afraid they’ll get stuck on it,” he added.

Phobias can be treated through “in vivo exposure” where, he said, “you actually go out with the person and approach whatever they’re afraid of. Find a park close to a bridge and sit and watch the bridge and control the runaway fear. Eventually, they’re driving over the bridge.”

Other therapists use virtual-reality goggles.

That presumes the patient wants to conquer the phobia head-on rather than drive dozens of extra miles to avoid a bridge, he said.

Kathy Marshack, a psychologist in Vancouver, Wash., said that witnessing the Twin Cities calamity could trigger something different than a phobia – genuine terror.

“So it’s really not fair if someone fell from a bridge or lost someone who fell off a bridge to call that a phobia,” she said. “Once you’ve had a real-life experience … it’s not unreasonable to be afraid.”

People who felt connected to the collapse that has killed at least four people, or who live in cities full of bridges, could develop post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.

“Witnessing these types of events, of being involved in them personally, that still stirs up the same psychological reaction as if you were there,” she said.

Talk it out, she advised.

“Find ways to let the stress and tension out of your body. Talk about how terrifying it is, and then you count your blessings,” she said. “Do what you can even if you can’t directly save those people who plunged into the river.”

For Faitz, that means adding a certain little gadget to her car.

“You hit glass and it’ll shatter glass,” she said. “I just saw one. I want it.”