Driving a car is considered a normal part of being an adult. But driving a car is inherently stressful. Most people tense up throughout their drive - especially while on the freeway - but tensing up becomes so natural that they don't even realize they're doing it.
Combine that with the natural feeling of being unable to escape if something went wrong, and it's no wonder that so many people have panic attacks while driving.
Cure Your Panic Attacks, Drive Comfortably
While there are ways to prevent panic attacks while driving, it won't be something you ever need to worry about again if you cure your panic attacks forever.
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Driving Fears are Normal
Your basic fear of driving is not too much of a problem. In fact, a little bit of anxiety may be healthy. It'll keep you alert and focused on what's around you, improving your ability to stay safe.
But panic attacks while driving can be terrifying. Panic attack symptoms can overwhelm the senses and actually make it more difficult to drive. If you haven't yet, take my anxiety test to find out more about your panic attacks and anxiety.
Why Panic Attacks Are Common in the Car
Panic attacks while driving are very common. You should note that even though panic attacks can be a bit overwhelming, you should still generally be safe. If you're concerned, pulling over to the side of the road until the panic attack is over may still be a good idea.
But most people still keep their wits together while having a panic attack even when they feel like they're going crazy, so it's up to how well you think you can keep driving.
There are several different factors that can contribute to driving panic attacks. These include:
- General Stress Panic attacks are more common when you're stressed, and as mentioned, stress when driving is completely natural. There are a lot of dangers on the road, along with bad drivers. Your driving ability is what keeps you safe, and part of that driving ability comes from being on high alert (aka, stress).
- Thinking About Panic Attacks One of the main causes of panic attacks is thinking about panic attacks. It's the catch-22 of panic disorder. It's very common to think about your panic attacks or even fear panic attacks when you drive, and that fear actually increases the likelihood that you'll experience one.
- Driving Hyperventilation Many things can cause you to hyperventilate while you're driving. The way you're sitting, your fear, and even your seatbelt may contribute to mild to moderate hyperventilation. In those with anxiety attacks, hyperventilation is both a cause and a symptom of panic disorder, and so if you hyperventilate for any reason when driving, it's likely to trigger an attack.
- General Sitting Pains Driving also causes a number of pains and sensations that may trigger panic attacks. Those with panic disorder are over-sensitive to the way their body feels. So if they feel any light pains, an increase in heart rate, leg weakness, and anything else that commonly affects those that sit in cars often, it may cause an attack.
- Panic Attacks and Danger Panic attacks also become associated with various activities, especially if those activities cause any stress or anxiety. If you had a panic attack in the car for reasons that had nothing to do with driving, you may increase your likelihood of having an attack again because your brain now associates the car with the attack. You'll also likely experience further fear when you try to keep driving during the attack, and so your car become a place even less comfortable.
The latter point is often a big problem for those with panic attacks. As soon as you've had an attack in the car, even if it's unrelated to being in the car, the attack will often become associated in your mind with the anxiety of driving, and future attacks become far more common.
How to Control Panic Attacks While Driving
Driving panic attacks are obviously very difficult to live with. You drive everywhere, and if you're also dealing with severe panic attacks, then you're going to be extremely scared while on the road.
The key to preventing these car attacks is to learn to prevent all panic attacks. It's hard to cure panic attacks in only one location since panic attacks can occur anywhere, and any time you have a panic attack you put yourself at risk for associating the attack with the location and having these attacks more often. You can try the following:
- Driving With Distractions Give yourself something to listen to so that you can get out of your own head. Music can help, but it may be better to listen to something like talk radio or podcasts in order to give yourself something to think about. That will make it harder to focus on the attack and how you feel.
- Driving Anyway Depending on how severe your attacks are, you may want to try driving anyway. Those that get very dizzy during their panic attacks may find driving to be too difficult. But those that can still drive should strongly consider facing their fear and driving anyway. The more you fear driving with panic attacks and the more you avoid driving because of them, the more likely you'll get a panic attack in the future when you do hit the road.
- Drive Safely All stress is bad stress when you suffer from panic attacks, so make sure you're not contributing to anything that will cause you anxiety. Drive the speed limit, take very few risks, keep a GPS in the car so that you're not worried about getting lost, and don't try to swerve around traffic. All of those behaviors increase stress, and stress increases panic attack risk.
- Breathe Controlled While driving, the tendency to breathe too quickly increases. When you feel like you're having a panic attack, don't try to take in as much air as possible. Instead, try to fight the urge and simply slow down your breathing so that each breath takes as long as 15 seconds or more. You should breathe in for 5 seconds, hold for 2 or 3, and breathe out for 7. This will prevent hyperventilation and improve carbon dioxide levels in the blood stream.
- Practice Driving for Extended Periods of Time Finally, while it may not be pleasant, sometimes the cure for driving panic attacks is to drive for so long that you find driving boring. You may get a panic attack while driving, but if you keep driving, you'll find that you start to worry about it less. See if you can drive in some area near your home, going no more than 20 or 30 miles per hour, and drive until you're so bored of driving that it becomes relaxing. Normally, the constant starting and stopping of driving reinforces your fear and allows you to run away from your anxiety before you feel calmer. This acts as a solution.
None of these are going to act as some type of rapid anxiety cure, nor are they going to provide you with a way to preventing all of your anxiety and all of your panic attacks. But they may reduce either the frequency or severity of your anxiety attacks while driving, so that hopefully you'll find it easier to be on the road.
Ultimately, the cure is going to be learning how to control the attacks themselves. Only then will you give yourself the best opportunity to prevent any and all panic attacks while in the car.
I've helped thousands of people with anxiety attacks drive on the road again, and I start them off with my free anxiety test. It's a test that looks at all of your symptoms, provides you with information about what you're dealing with, and tells you how you can treat it.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.