Driving on a motorway experiencing driving anxiety

A client once came to me gripped with fear after witnessing a car accident. It turned out she’d developed serious driving anxiety. 

She’d overcome severe nervousness to pass her driving test some years before. But after the traumatic motorway incident she became unable to shift the thought that it could happen to her.

Over the years, more and more people have sought help for dealing with anxiety around driving. 

If this is something you relate to, you can take comfort that you are not alone. Indeed, as many as 39% of people are anxious about driving

In this blog I’ll explain why you might be suffering from driving anxiety and lay out some ways to stop it from ruining your life.

What is driving anxiety?

Put simply, driving anxiety is the fear of driving

For some people it can be so severe that they feel anxiety even before getting in a car. 

Some people cannot cope with even being a passenger in a car and have to find alternative modes of transport. 

Other people suffer panic attacks and severe reactions when they get behind the wheel. Others have very specific fears, which I will describe below, that make driving a petrifying experience. 

The driving part

Driving anxiety manifests itself in different ways for different people. For many it’s the fear of panicking on the road and killing others, or themselves, or their passengers. 

With people who have children, the fear of causing an accident that harms their young ones can be crippling.

I’ve had clients come to me after suffering a massive panic attack on a motorway. One client’s vision was blurred, because of her blind panic. She thought she was going to black out. Fortunately she managed to pull her car over to the hard shoulder and call for help.

One 65-year-old driver had been a competent and safe driver his whole life. After a scary near-crash he developed driving phobia and needed my help to get back to feeling calm and in control while driving.

Here are some other fears related to driving anxiety – some of which you may have felt yourself:

  • Losing control while at the wheel
  • Causing an accident
  • Somebody driving into me
  • Fear of driving lessons 
  • Fear of other motorists/road rage
  • Worried I might get distracted by something inside our outside the car
  • High-speed driving anxiety – afraid to drive too fast on a motorway
  • Being trapped in a traffic jam unable to move or escape
  • Driving when alone
  • Driving in the dark
  • Driving in the rain, thunderstorms, high wind, hailstones with poor visibility
  • Fear of lorries, vans, trucks, buses and other large vehicles
  • Not knowing where you’re going

Any one of these scenarios can create crippling anxiety and intrusive thoughts. Some of the symptoms you might feel are laid out below.

The anxiety part

Any form of anxiety is unpleasant. It can take the form of physical symptoms. Your hands might shake uncontrollably. You might struggle to breathe. And the mental symptoms are just as awful. Obsessive thoughts that you cannot stop. A dark sense of impending disaster.

Anxiety while at home or at work is a terrible experience. Feeling it while controlling a vehicle on busy roads or windy country lanes is a terrifying thing. So terrifying that many simply avoid driving.

Here are some ways in which anxiety can manifest:

  • Sweating/perspiring profusely
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Shaking
  • Feeling confused or disorientated
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweaty palms
  • Stomach cramps or diarrhoea
  • Heart racing/beating too fast
  • Panic
  • Difficulty breathing normally

While you may have experienced any or all of these – or if your symptoms differ in some way – it’s important to remember things can change. 

What to do in a driving anxiety emergency

Experiencing anxiety symptoms while at the wheel of a car can be terrifying. Especially if you are on a fast-moving road or motorway.

In moments like this, it may not be possible to quickly get yourself into a mentally Zen zone. Instead, take some simple steps to protect yourself and others:

  • Breathe – it sounds simple, but remember to breathe slowly and deeply to activate your parasympathetic system and prevent your brain from going into ‘fight or flight’ mode.
  • Pull over – As soon as it is safe, pull your vehicle over to the roadside, slow down to a halt and switch off the engine.
  • Count to 10 – Give yourself time to recompose by doing simple counting – keep doing the deep breathing to keep yourself from panicking
  • Call somebody – At this stage, you will need to reach out to a comforting voice of reason. Call a loved one, or if you are in real distress call the emergency services or a breakdown company.

Hopefully you’ll never encounter this kind of scenario. If you have, I deeply empathise with you. It’s scary. But remember, you can solve this, so that it never happens again!

Read on to discover some really effective tips on changing your feelings about driving from deep negativity to a positive, confident, capable, empowered outlook.

How does driving anxiety make you feel?

For many people driving is an absolute necessity. For most people it’s considered a basic facet of modern life. For others it can be a signifier of status. 

Feeling crippled by a fear that stops you driving can leave you feeling alone. It can feel like you’re missing out on a vital part of modern life. You can feel a failure. You might even feel guilt.

On a more basic level, it feels embarrassing to be afraid to get in your car. The reactions of others can feel humiliating. Many people say they feel like driving anxiety is ruining their life. 

If you feel like this, rest assured there are solutions. 

You might be avoiding driving and instead walking your kids to school. You might only feel safe driving on specific routes. You might avoid certain places, roads, roundabouts, out of a lingering fear of something bad happening. You might not be able to sleep the night before a car journey.

It’s likely that this driving phobia has sapped your self-confidence. After all, car travel is meant to be enjoyable, not a source of panic.

You almost certainly are feeling like there’s no way you can get past these fears. You’re wrong! 

I understand how awful it feels to have driving anxiety. That’s why the point of this blog is to help alleviate these fears. 

The first part of the process is to acknowledge the fear, identify it, own it, admit it, let those feelings of embarrassment fall to the side and embrace a positive change

Overcome your driving anxiety completely in 12 steps

Step 1 – The basics

Get to the simple facts of your driving anxiety. What is it that scares you? Get a pen and paper, write it down, in as much detail as possible. This will represent the problem. Next, we’ll set out the roadmap to the solution.

Step 2 – The people

Fear of driving might feel like a personal thing – and in many ways it is. Once you’re behind the wheel it’s you in charge. But the people in your life can either be a help or a hindrance when driving. Is your partner a negative or aggressive driver? Does your instructor cause you anxiety? Tell them. Verbalise it. 

And if they can’t change their behaviour into a positive help, remove them from your driving routine. Get a new instructor. Tell your partner you won’t drive if they’re in the car. Set boundaries and you’ll feel better.

Likewise, if there are people in your life who you know make you feel calmer and more capable, try to get them to share the car with you. Maybe one day you drive them to work, the next day they drive you. 

Step 3 – The Zen zone

When you drive you need to be alert but relaxed. Driving tense or anticipating fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Do deep breathing exercises. Do yoga. Lie down in a dark room and meditate yourself into calmness, before attempting to drive. Here is one of my simple breathing techniques to control anxiety.

Step 4 – Find a specialist driving instructor

You may benefit from finding an expert driving therapist. These are usually specialists who are fantastic at keeping drivers calm. They can teach you methods on how to handle anxiety behind the wheel

Even before you begin to drive they can put you in a place that buoys you, builds confidence, and negates your fears. 

Some of them are also experts in helping drivers heal the mental wounds of previous traumatic experiences in cars, such as being involved in accidents.

Step 5 – Take motorway driving lessons

After passing your driving test, many people find their first solo attempts at motorway driving quite scary. But many driving schools now offer specialised lessons for driving up to the national speed limit of 70mph. And you can take these even before taking your driving test.

Step 6 – Do the Pass Plus course

The Pass Plus is a great tool for drivers who have passed their test but want to become not just competent drivers, but excellent drivers. It really builds confidence, having an instructor continue to develop your skills and understanding of your car and the roads.

Step 7 – Take a refresher course

Maybe you haven’t driven for a while. Or maybe the changing nature of today’s roads feels unfamiliar and daunting compared to the past. There’s no shame in doing a refresher course. 

For anxious drivers, simply having a professional teacher in the car with you can help you rediscover the skills you thought you’d lost.

Step 8 – Consider switching to an automatic car

Although in UK law most people take their driving tests in cars with manual gearboxes, if changing gears is adding a layer of anxiety to your driving, think about getting an automatic car. 

Automatics simplify what your brain, feet and hands have to do while driving. Essentially reducing the mechanics down to just one foot and your hands on the steering wheel and indicators (when needed).

Step 9 – Stay in your comfort zone, then ease out gradually

If particular roads scare you, don’t force yourself to drive on them. This could make your anxiety worse. It’s ok if you have to take a detour or longer route, if it means you feel better about being behind the wheel.

After a while you can set yourself small targets. If there’s one particular junction, turning or traffic light that causes you anxiety, maybe use it one day per week. Then build up to more frequent use.

Step 10 – Use the audio Sat Nav narrator

Whichever maps app you use to direct you to your destination, try using the audio narrator. Hearing the voice of a guide literally telling you where to go can be tremendously reassuring!

Step 11 – go for a drive on Sunday mornings

For many people, it’s the busy traffic that causes anxiety. Sunday mornings are notoriously quiet periods on the roads. 

Take the car out on a quiet Sunday morning, even just around the block in your immediate neighbourhood. Get yourself readjusted to driving without the stress of having to deal with other cars.

Step 12 – Get therapy

You can also try traditional therapy. Whatever it is that triggers your anxiety at the wheel, therapeutic techniques like ‘desensitisation’ can neutralise those triggers. This can take time, but may be effective if you’re the kind of person who likes exploring your own inner psychology.

Try hypnosis with Subconsciously

When I developed the Subconsciously app, driving anxiety was an important focus. Why? Because getting over your driving anxiety can literally save lives. Not to mention how empowered you’ll feel.

Subconsciously is self-hypnosis. It works in just the same way as if you came to see me for a hypnotherapy session. It puts you in a tranquil and suggestive state of mind. When you come out, you will have a different attitude to your fears.

I’ve created many types of sessions on Subconsciously, including specialised ones for fear or driving. Take a look at the website, download the app today, and subscribe to conquer your driving fears.