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How to Reduce Anxiety While Driving

Vivian Okirie, M.D.
How to Reduce Anxiety While Driving

Many people are afraid of spiders, and far fewer appear to be afraid of cars. When you attempt to rationalize this, it’s unusual since cars are far more dangerous than spiders. However, spiders have the higher incidence of phobia associated with them.

A common hypothesis involves the effect of evolution.  Humans have been around spiders for a longer extent of time than they have cars.  We have evolved to create a fear of potentially dangerous insects, but cars were developed too quickly for us to have created a fear of cars. We also tend to spend more time with and around cars than we do spiders, allowing us to adapt to automobiles far more easily than some of us can with spiders. 

Nevertheless, some individuals still experience great anxiety while driving, often in various ways. Some people fear riding in cars, while others experience fear while on the road as they try to keep themselves out of danger. There are people who even suffer from panic attacks while in their car, but are not actually afraid of the car itself.  All of these are various types of automobile anxiety, and all of them require different techniques to cope with the anxiety.

Any Stress Can Cause Anxiety

Anything that stimulates stress can lead to anxiety, and we all known that driving is stressful. Every instance you’re behind the wheel, you not only have to drive to your destination, but also dodge others driving at high speeds, while texting, or under adverse weather conditions. As much as we might not want to admit it, everyone is just not as skilled or talented at driving like they should. Most of us have had at least one frightening driving experience, witnessed new reports of car accidents, or simply undergone our own anxiety while on the road. 

Causes of Driving Anxiety

There are several different types of driving anxiety and thousands of experiences that may lead to panic behind the wheel. Two of the most common causes of driving anxiety include:

One of the most frightening instances of driving anxiety occurs when someone has a panic/anxiety attack while operating a vehicle. Panic attacks overwhelm individuals,  because they encompass your entire mind and body, making it difficult to concentrate on anything else. When they come on, it can feel like there is no escape, which is only heightened if this happens when driving.  Unfortunately, these events can cause increased anxiety with driving, because of the fear of having another panic attack behind the wheel.  If allowed to have these thoughts, people will likely incite another panic attack. These attacks have a way of repeating simply based on the fear of having it again. 

Anxiety also tends to occur as a response to dangerous experiences or perceived dangerous experiences. For example, an accident or several near accidents may promote anxiety of driving. Even hearing about car accidents or seeing them can contribute to that anxiety.

It is also possible to merely develop anxiety while driving that builds up over time. Small increments of stress that accumulate over a period can eventually create anxiety great enough to influence how you currently drive.  This anxiety can then make it even more difficult to reach your destination.  It is often underestimated how these anxious moments can impact your driving experience. 

Tips to Reduce Driving Anxiety

Overcoming the anxiety of driving is a process, but we want to be clear. There will and should always be some level of fear when driving; otherwise, everyone would be driving recklessly without a care in the world. However, that fear should remain minimal and be understood that it serves a purpose. Having anxiety while driving is not to be expected, and this is what will take some work to manage and overcome. Since fear while driving is expected, but anxiety is not; it can be a challenge to sort through. 

For many, this is easier said than done. If your anxiety is so pronounced you can't even get into a car, then it may not be possible. But for those who can muster the courage to drive, keep on driving. It should not be avoided even it causes you severe anxiety. If you start avoiding driving, your anxiety will only worsen, making it harder to chip away. With continued efforts, your anxiety should begin to lessen in strength and frequency. Those that completely avoid driving- or any phobia- you only confirm your fears, and you can't afford to do that if you want to overcome it. 

Make sure that your driving is not adding to the anxiety you experience. Drive within the speed limit. Signal before you turn.  Check your blind spots. The list could go on.  One of the problems with driving anxiety is inadvertently contributing to your anxiety by driving haphazardly.  If you drive recklessly, of course your driving anxiety will increase. So let’s work on minimizing it by ensuring that you aren’t a dangerous driver. 

Simply being behind the wheel in an anxiety-free environment can be beneficial, especially if you drive for long periods that can cause you to get tired or bored. Try finding a large, empty parking lot and driving through it for a while. The longer you drive without any distractions of hazards present, the more at ease you’ll become. As you keep driving, it should become monotonous, decreasing your anxiety even further. The more boring driving becomes, the less your anxiety will get stimulated (and the better you’ll feel and drive). 

Mindfulness is awareness. The more you become self-aware of tension and stress, the more you’ll be able to de-escalate your desire to panic.  If you start to feel yourself gripping the steering wheel too hard, having dangerous wandering thoughts, shaking, etc., you will be able to better get control of your emotions.  Once you can manage your emotions, your symptoms will soon begin to subside, and you should see a grand improvement in your overall stress levels. Mindfulness is about paying attention and addressing each example of stress one-by-one until you're more in control.

In addition to all of the tips above, traditional anti-anxiety strategies for phobias, panic attacks, and generalized anxiety are all extremely valuable. Though the treatments may not be specifically for driving anxiety, they do address several of the thoughts and symptoms related to driving anxiety and can help you comfortably get back behind the wheel.

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