Overcoming Driving Anxiety

Nearly 66% of Americans experience driving anxiety — with 55% experiencing anxiety performing basic driving maneuvers

Whether you’re a student driver or have years of experience on the road, a majority of Americans (66%) experience driving anxiety. More than half of Americans also specified common driving skills like backing up/reversing, completing a U-turn, making unprotected left turns, merging onto the highway, passing other vehicles and switching lanes gave them the most anxiety. Other more complex driving skills (e.g., parallel parking) were more of a concern for 16% of drivers.

Why do people get anxious or afraid to drive?

Factors like mental health history, driving ability or prior negative experiences can all contribute to anxious symptoms while driving. Read more about these factors below.

  • Prior history of anxiety
    If you have a family history of anxiety disorders, your likelihood of developing anxiety in life may be higher. Natural predispositions to anxiety in other areas of life can heighten anxiety behind the wheel.
  • Presence of driving-related phobias
    Specific phobias like the fear of fatalities, getting lost, being in open spaces, losing control and getting trapped can all trigger anxiety. Additional car-related phobias like amaxophobia (the fear of being in a vehicle) or vehophobia (the fear of driving) can cause extreme symptoms.
  • Lack of confidence in driving ability
    Those who are learning to drive or don’t believe they have adequate driving skills may be prone to driving anxiety. Additionally, anxious drivers may overcompensate on the road, which can lead to mistakes at the wheel.
  • Previous negative driving experiences
    Scary or negative driving experiences can also trigger anxiety in drivers. Events like major or minor traffic accidents or driving alone at night can result in symptoms. Also, driving in dangerous places or under risky conditions like heavy rain or snow, fog, floods or landslides are all causes for anxiety, even if an accident doesn’t actually occur.

1. Seek to understand what triggered your anxiety

When trying to overcome driving anxiety, it’s helpful to first understand where it comes from. Think back about your experiences driving, riding as a passenger or just being exposed to cars and reflect on moments that made you start feeling anxious. Perhaps it was a memory of an anxious parent driving or a television show that depicted a particularly traumatic car crash that first triggered your anxiety.

Understanding the cause of your driving anxiety can help you effectively cope with it. For example, if a scary driving situation brought on anxious feelings, it may be best to confront that memory to get over your symptoms. On the other hand, if you find that you have anxious tendencies as a person, it may be best for you to seek professional help.

2. Reframe your thoughts

Those with driving anxiety can experience intrusive thoughts that cause great distress while driving. These thoughts could be about getting lost or stranded, panicking in case of an emergency or even just the what-ifs about potential danger and accidents. It’s easy to focus on these thoughts and let them dictate whether we avoid driving or are limited in our abilities, but reframing those thoughts can help.

For example, if you’re worried about merging onto the freeway, instead of thinking about the potential for danger, recall all the times you successfully merged without an incident. Or if you’re scared that you’ll panic during an emergency, remind yourself that you know what to do and run through the steps that you’ll take to resolve the situation.

3. Concentrate on driving in the moment

Whether you’re taking a long drive or a short one to an unfamiliar place, it can be easy to think about all the unknowns you may encounter on the road. If you’re worried about things like heavy traffic, crossing a bridge or making that one unprotected left turn, you’ll be a bundle of nerves the entire drive. Instead, try concentrating on getting through each part of the journey one step at a time, and don’t let that one scary part dictate your emotions. Stay focused on your driving in the moment and practicing safe driving habits at all times.

4. Test out different relaxation techniques

Another way to overcome anxiety while driving is to rely on relaxation techniques that work for you. Anxiety can manifest in many ways, so first learn about what symptoms affect you and find an effective way to relieve them. A common symptom of anxiety is an increased heart rate, but practicing deep breathing can help you calm down.

Some people feel tension in their neck and shoulders when at the wheel. If that sounds like you, work on relaxing your muscles by starting with your grip on the wheel and working your way up your arm to your shoulders. If your mind races with a million thoughts about what might happen, try to put yourself in a mindful state before you even start the car. Do this by putting on calming music to keep your nerves at bay. Additionally, you can repeat positive driving affirmations if you begin to doubt yourself or mentally list things you see in your surroundings (e.g., trees, dog walkers, stores, etc.) to ground your thoughts.

5. Drive outside of your comfort zone

If you’re feeling ready to face your anxiety head-on, getting experience driving outside of your comfort zone can work wonders for alleviating your symptoms. Many people get anxious about driving in an unfamiliar place, but the more you expand your boundaries, the more places will become familiar to you as a driver.

Additionally, as you gain positive experiences driving in new places, you’ll build up confidence in yourself and your driving skills that will help you overcome anxious tendencies. Remember that driving outside of your comfort zone will trigger your anxiety, so it’s good to start small and be patient with your progress.

6. Get help from a specialized professional

If your driving anxiety is extreme and significantly interferes with your everyday routine, it’s best to consult a mental health professional. Depending on your genetics and other factors, your symptoms may be caused by a larger concern such as an anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder or phobia. It’s best to seek out help from someone who specializes in these mental health conditions so that you can effectively learn to cope or find the right types of treatment.

7. Consider cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a specific type of psychological treatment that’s been known to help people with anxiety disorders. CBT assesses your patterns of thought and behavior and specifically targets the unlearning of unhealthy patterns, so that you learn to regain control and cope effectively. If this type of therapy seems helpful for your symptoms, you can locate a CBT therapist near you with this Therapist Directory from the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

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