Driving anxiety is a very real issue, but it doesn’t have to stop you from getting behind the wheel forever. These tips will help you
Most us have situations we’d rather not drive in – on busy motorways, through rainstorms, on icy roads or over narrow bridges. But for some people, a fear of driving isn’t limited to a specific time and place, and it’s more than just an aversion – it’s a full-blown phobia with a deep impact on daily life.
Where does the fear of driving come from?
In most cases, a fear of driving is caused by a specific incident. You’ve had an accident and, even if you could drive immediately afterwards, maybe you took a break for a while (holiday, long weekend). When you attempted driving again, you found it so difficult that eventually, you simply could not take the wheel.
Author Joanne Mallon wrote about her fear of driving coming on after narrowly avoiding an accident when her brakes failed. On top of that experience, she grew up with mother who didn’t like to drive, and as an adult had a stressful job that contributed to general feelings of anxiety. She even gave up her car for a while after having a baby, which grew to her feeling more and more removed from driving. “The seeds that grew into this phobia were sprinkled throughout my life,” she says.
But for a number of people, a fear of driving is a form of agoraphobia (the fear of open or public space) which can be fuelled and worsened by stress – something we’re all familiar with in our busy modern lives. Being away from home is part of the agoraphobic’s fear, so it’s easy to see how driving could exacerbate it.
When driving, an agoraphobe will be worried that she may suffer a panic attack, which is defined by the feeling that she is about to lose control, rather than the literal fear of having an accident. In this instance people avoid driving again and again, until it develops into a full-blown phobia.
One woman in her 30s had her first panic attack while driving on a motorway during a foreign holiday. “After that, I found I was so scared of having any more panic attacks that I avoided motorway driving altogether. I was all right driving around where I knew, even though it is a busy area, but motorways terrified me. Occasionally I would accidentally drive onto one, and would have to pull over onto the hard shoulder, shaking and in tears.”
How should I deal with a fear of driving?
Part of the problem with phobias is that they seem irrational to anyone not affected by them – making it difficult to find outside sympathy. We can’t pretend that driving is not risky business, but if you learn to drive with the help of a professional instructor and build up your confidence, driving is much safer than your fearful imagination will tell you.
For the moderately fearful driver, the best thing to do is to keep driving. If you put it off for another day, you’ll never develop the experience that builds confidence. Many people claim that it was only when they were forced to drive every day – by living in an area without access to public transport for example – they overcame their fears completely.
Others have found that playing certain music or comedy CDs in the car can change their feelings sufficiently. According to research, music has been shown to significantly reduce emotional distress in hospital and cancer patients – so imagine what it can do for your anxieties.
Another well-researched self-help strategy is to repeat a mantra that makes you feel calm as soon as the fearful feelings begin. This is particularly useful if you don’t like driving over bridges or on busy roundabouts – try repeating the mantra to yourself or even out loud in those situations
Mindfulness breathing exercises – say, breathing in for four counts, holding your breath four counts, then exhaling for six counts – can also help, according to research.
And it may sound too simple to be true, but just reminding yourself of how many successful times you’ve had behind the wheel works wonders for building confidence.
Do I need professional help?
The therapy most commonly used to help people who fear driving is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This involves identifying the feelings and emotions that occur when affected by fear of driving – sweating palms, nausea, heart palpitations, dizziness — and attempts to escape that fear response through gradual, timed exposure. Of course, this is uncomfortable at first, but it has been found to be very effective, particularly when dealing with people who have suffered the trauma of a car accident as the initial trigger.
And fear of driving is one of the main reasons why people consult hypnotherapists. One client who overcame 10 years of fear of driving after three sessions says, “It wasn’t so much what the therapist said to me, or the hypnosis itself, it was the way it shifted my belief in my ability to cope with driving.” Other forms of psychotherapy and counselling may also help, especially if the root cause is further back in your life.
What else can I do?
It’s important to remember that driving a car is an inherently dangerous activity.Aim to be conscious but relaxed; don’t let yourself be distracted by others in the car; and keep practising, daily if possible, so that driving seems natural to you, rather than something that induces fear or panic.