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Anxiety while driving is a common phenomena. Many of my clients experience it. If you have it, it may be severe enough to be categorized as a specific phobia. That is, you have a phobia of driving, like someone would have a phobia of spiders, or of small spaces. You may be terrified of driving and avoid it all costs. It may get in the way of you having relationships, or working, or other important and essential activities to having a fulfilling life. Or, you may fall into another category of anxious drivers categorized as what's called a reluctant driver, meaning , you drive when you have to, and tolerate anxiety, but avoid it if you are able to.
Where does anxiety while driving come from?
If you are struggling with driving anxiety, it may come from very different sources. I actually experienced this myself after a bad accident several years ago.
For some, anxiety while driving results from an accident. If you have been in a car accident where you were the driver, it may be that you have avoided driving and experienced a worsening of your symptoms because of it. Or perhaps it's because you witnessed an accident, and your fear built from there. It may even be from being the passenger in a car and being involved in an accident.
For some anxiety while driving results from a lack of experience. If you don't have a lot of experience driving or haven't been given proper training, you can feel inadequate behind the wheel. This lack of experience can translate into anxiety, which actually worsens your driving skills and your driving experience. A calm driver is a better driver.
Still others may feel anxious because they experienced a panic attack in the car, or because something else happened while they were in a car such as they were a victim of road rage or their car broke down and they were stranded.
Another cause of anxiety while driving may be a dislike of tunnels or bridges or railroad tracks, if you are fearful of small spaces, or heights or other things, your anxiety can be confined to driving in those certain places.
Others may become anxious because their eyesight is failing, and they are feel less capable to drive, when they were once very competent.
Depending on the specific issues that is causing your anxiety the first thing to remember is anxiety is fueled by avoidance. Do not avoid driving no matter how much you want to. At the same time, regardless of the cause of your anxiety, it can be dangerous to be behind the wheel if you are scared.
Driving while highly anxious IS dangerous. Anxious driving behavior is characterized by driving poorly ( under or over the speed limit), with excessive caution that hinders the flow of traffic patterns, or even aggressively in some cases. So what should you do?
1. Relaxation is important. Practicing strategies to help relax your body and mind so you can be better tuned in to tension and stress that might lead to poor choices.
2. Take a driving class. Paying for driving with an instructor can often boost your self esteem, and can correct some of the driving mistakes that anxiety may be lending itself to.
3. Get some short term therapy. A therapist can assess the extent of the fear while driving you are having. It may be that some short term cognitive behavioral therapy to understand your fear and how your thoughts and behaviors are driving it is all you need. If you are fearful of bridges or railroad tracks, that phobia can be treated separately. If you are having panic attacks, those can be treated as well. In the case of a traumatic accident, or more frequent panic attacks, you may be in need of more tailored techniques such as somatic experiencing, or emdr for trauma, or more targeted exposure therapy for your panic attacks.
Sometimes therapy may address driving phobia if you are not driving at all, and that will necessitate a carefully constructed exposure hierarchy, to slowly introduce you to comfortable levels of anxiety while easing you back into driving. This is not normally something you can do on your own.
4. If you are having a panic attack, it's okay to pull off to the side of the road and just wait until it passes. It will pass and then you can resume driving to your destination.
Here is another great article on overcoming your fear of driving.
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This page is about how self-compassion and mindfulness and skills such as forgiveness, kindness and compassion can help us with depression and anxiety.