How to Deal with Driving Anxiety
If you get anxious when driving, you’re not alone! Driving anxiety is actually a very common form of anxiety. When I first started my practice I never even thought about this as an issue people would come in with, but in my practice it is number two–right behind fear of public speaking. In fact I see people for anxiety about driving 10x more than for fear of flying!
Driving anxiety can range in severity and be different for each person who suffers from it. It can range from hesitation to drive, it can be that the anxiety to drive is always present and can even go all the way to an inability to drive at all– a driving phobia. Phobias are irrational, but paralyzing fears.
When and where the driving anxiety kicks in varies too. I’ve worked with people who were anxious about driving on highways or freeways, or just over bridges. I’ve seen people who were anxious about all driving, even city streets. And I had a client who was fine if there was someone else in the car (even her dog!) but felt fear when driving alone.
What all these people have had in common is a fear of loss of control. It’s the “what if’s” that run through their minds, unbidden and definitely unhelpful. What if I break down? What if I have to get off the road and there’s no room? What if I drive over the edge of the bridge? What if, what if, what if. They might fear getting stuck in a traffic jam, or having a panic attack while driving and getting into an accident. One woman I worked with couldn’t drive down streets where the tree branches touched overhead.
Symptoms of Driving Anxiety
While the specific situations in which people feel nervous while driving vary, the symptoms of driving anxiety are pretty much the same as with any other type of anxiety: a racing heart, sweating, feeling disoriented or confused, dry mouth, and changes in breathing. These are easily recognized as fight or flight responses, and they feel very real and frightening to the person suffering from these fears. The natural course of events is to try to avoid these feelings, and when you avoid things like this they tend to generalize out and continue to get worse and even start to show up in more and more types of circumstances.
In today’s world a fear of driving really affects a person’s ability to function. Driving to work, to school, even to get groceries or to do something you used to find enjoyable like visiting a friend or going out for the evening, becomes an ordeal. Life gets smaller and smaller over time.
How does driving anxiety start?
There is no one way driving anxiety can start, just as there is no one way to experience it. Sometimes people have a fear of driving because of an incident that happened, maybe a car accident or an almost- accident, and they’re now sensitized. The memory is still very active and the subconscious mind is trying to protect you. And sometimes there doesn’t seem to be any particular bad experience that you can point to, just all of a sudden one day you started getting shaky, maybe sweaty and nervous while driving and from then on that feeling started to show up more and more.
This kind of sudden onset anxiety while driving can happen because of an episode of low blood sugar (you can watch my video below about how low blood sugar can cause anxieties to form).
One thing that can cause or worsen a driving anxiety is avoiding driving. Avoiding literally builds more neural pathways in the right prefrontal cortex and strengthens the pathways of avoidance. So, the more you avoid driving, the more you avoid driving, and the more difficult it feels to break out of that pattern. But everything IS learned and you can learn to become comfortable with driving again, too.
Driving Anxiety Tips
So how can you stop avoiding driving and begin returning to a feeling of safety and comfort? If you’re currently not driving because of this fear, I do recommend that you seek the help to get you back in the driver’s seat.
Support Your Blood Sugar.
Don’t drive when you haven’t slept well, and don’t drive when you haven’t eaten. Support your blood sugar by having a meal with protein, healthy fats and fiber. Pay attention to how you feel after certain foods, especially those high in sugar and simple carbs. Even if your anxiety didn’t begin because of a low blood sugar episode, unstable blood sugar can trigger or worsen it.
Watch the Caffeine.
Caffeine is a known anxiety trigger. I’ve had clients overcome anxiety simply by cutting back or eliminating caffeine. Mountain Dew and coffee are the chief offenders.
Not only is it good for the environment but it’s good for you in other ways. Being pleasantly distracted by conversation with others can reduce anxiety. If carpooling isn’t practical for you, look for other ways to engage your mind while you drive. Talk radio or your favorite music are excellent choices, as are audio books.
Often people come to me for help in one area (such as fear of driving) when it gets to be all too much because other areas of their life are flaring up too. Too much stress over an extended period will make stress and anxiety in all areas feel worse. Stress management is health management — take breaks, try meditation, self hypnosis, exercise, long walks, time in nature and so on. If life is feeling overwhelming and it’s flowing over into areas like driving for you, try implementing some steps to calm your mind.
Manage Your Self Talk.
Especially in the area of what is called anticipatory anxiety. This happens frequently with driving fear, as people look forward – negatively, apprehensively – to driving that they have to do. “Oh my gosh I have to go into Minneapolis tomorrow. I’m dreading it already!” The more you do this negative “future pacing” the worse the build up is. Instead, catch yourself and replace those thoughts with positive and self empowering thoughts — I know I can handle it. I can leave early so I don’t have to be in a rush, etc.
Set Yourself Up for Success.
When you are planning to drive in situations that, in the past, cause that driving anxiety, planning ahead is planning to succeed. Leave early. Check the maps to see if there’s construction or any accidents. Have your favorite music in the car. Eat a balanced meal beforehand. Set yourself up so that you can feel like you have options during the drive. For example, by leaving early you have time to drive more slowly, or pull over and take a break. Or maybe take a side excursion to do something fun (antique stores, anyone?) so that your mind starts to have new, positive associations to counteract the fear.
Start Easy and Build Up Your Confidence.
Also called a “desensitization hierarchy,” the idea here is to start driving in situations you feel more comfortable with and then slowly work your way up to progressively more and more difficult types of circumstances as your confidence and comfort build. This, by the way, is much easier to do in hypnosis and is a technique I use with clients all the time.
You’ll Be OK. Really.
I know how real it feels, and how bad it feels, but you’ve always gotten through it, it will not kill you. After all, you’re reading this right now, aren’t you? Your reaction to the feelings of anxiety can make it more manageable, or make it worse. Learn to move into your “observer self.” Start to get curious about exactly how you do anxiety, observe it with detachment. Learn how to properly take calming breaths and be present — feel your butt in the car seat. Notice the texture of the steering wheel. Learn how to center and ground yourself — learn this before your anxiety peaks so that you have a skill you can rely on to help you through.
If you’re still having the experience of anxiety while driving, review these tips and really give them some solid effort. If you need some help though, call me. I have helped many people return to being able to drive again, to get their lives back, and I am here as a resource for you when you need me; feel free to book a consultation. I wish you the very best and want you to be able to drive with confidence and comfort — and even have FUN driving again!