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For Fearful Drivers, the Therapist Is In . . . the Passenger Seat


Does life in the fast lane strike terror in your heart?

Does merging make your palms sweat?

Sy Cohn, a Van Nuys psychotherapist who specializes in freeway phobias, invites you to step into his office. This shrink's couch is the driver's seat.

Take a few deep breaths, intones the Freud of the Freeways. Think happy thoughts. Journey in your mind to a peaceful place. Imagine a white light surrounding your car, a glowing bubble protecting you from that 18-wheeler barreling down upon you.

Slide his cassette of dreamy New Age music and recorded pep talks into the tape player. Fasten your seat belt and go for it.

You're good enough. You're smart enough. And doggone it, people like you.

So you deserve to change lanes without closing your eyes and throwing up.

No one said it was going to be easy. The Greater Los Angeles area is a spaghetti bowl of 1,801 miles of freeway, traveled daily by more than 5.7 million hurtling vehicles. It's daunting and stressful to one and all.

But some folks find it seriously terrifying. They suffer paralyzing panic attacks, hearts pounding, heads spinning. They must get off! Now!

"There are millions of people who need driving therapy," says Cohn, who taught driving in Panorama City for 15 years before he stressed, dropped out and rediscovered himself at Big Sur's Esalen Institute, home of the touchy-feely human potential movement. That led to a master's degree in psychology and a unique marriage of his old and new disciplines. Ergo, the "Driving Therapist."

Cohn said people with driving disorders tend to be type A personalities: compulsive perfectionists with above-average intelligence who are hard on themselves. "Sometimes I wonder if ignorance isn't bliss," he said.

Clients call him when freeway phobia keeps them from doing what they want to do. Many are women who are recently widowed, divorced or separated from the men who did the lion's share of the family's freeway driving.

They learn about Cohn via classes he gives through Los Angeles Mission College--or they see his newspaper ads, which feature a pair of worried eyes and a furrowed brow reflected in a rear-view mirror.

Cohn's driving therapy is an eclectic brew taken from the pop-psych shelf of the local bookstore: relaxation techniques, visualization and self-esteem builders, with a sprinkling of New Age and 12-step philosophies. Just how much New Ageism is included depends on the tastes of the individual client.

Astral projection and exploring past lives are not beyond the realm of possibility. Nor is the use of comfort props such as teddy bears and crystals.

The goal is to transform the car into a comfortable, stress-free environment. Bring snacks, soothing music, perfume, Cohn advises.

"My car is the friendliest, happiest place on Earth," says the soothing voice on the tape of affirmations Cohn gives clients to play while driving. There are two tapes, actually: "Overcoming Driving Fears and Stress I," an overview of relaxation techniques and self-esteem boosters, and "Overcoming Driving Fears and Stress II," featuring audible and "subliminal" messages to repeat while driving.

However, there is one disclaimer: Cohn "assumes no responsibility for anyone's driving while using these tapes."

Sandra H.--she doesn't want her last name published because she is embarrassed by her phobia--slipped the tape into her car's cassette player on a recent afternoon and gathered her wits as she and the therapist sat in a white Corolla in the basement garage of her Encino apartment building. It was her third driving-therapy session.

She hadn't driven the Ventura Freeway for 20 years until she hired Cohn. But the previous day, she drove it all the way to Thousand Oaks.

Newly separated from her husband, Sandra had found the idea of visiting her grown son in Culver City, attending classes in Pasadena or visiting friends on the Westside suddenly out of the question. She'd never even driven over the hill on the southbound San Diego Freeway.

"Get in touch with the kid in you," Cohn urged as she closed her eyes and breathed deeply. In on the count of 6, out on 8. "Take yourself to your comfortable area."

While her body sat in the Encino-locked Corolla, her mind flew to Lake Arrowhead. Sometimes, she conjures up an ice-skating rink where she had a wonderful time as a child.

Then, it was white-light-and-affirmation time: "I have the white light around me for protection," she repeated after the voice on the tape. "I will only be given today what I can handle. Whatever I do, I'll do it the best I can. Let my energy flow for its highest good."

And off she went, left on Ventura Boulevard, left again toward the freeway. Cohn asked about her anxiety level. It was pushing 3 on a scale of 10 and they were still on surface streets. Why?

"Because I can see the freeway," she said. The therapist's hand covered hers on the steering wheel. "Don't be afraid." As if on cue, more affirmations poured from the speakers: "All the turns I make are the right turns. I am on the road to recovery."

Sandra H.'s road to recovery included driving two freeways--in the slow lane but at the speed limit. Her anxiety level maxxed out at 4. She got on and off the Ventura several times--first at Haskell, driving unfazed around the curve where her son had an accident, then at the Sepulveda and Tampa exits. She drove the southbound San Diego, getting on and off at Sunset.

"It's not as bad as I thought," she said.

As long as the white light is her co-pilot.

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