Anxiousness around driving is an extremely common form of panic that can range in extremes from a mild hesitation to drive, where anxiousness is always present when driving, all the way up to a complete refusal to operate a vehicle at all, in which case it becomes classified as a phobia. A phobia is a fear or dread that is so extreme that it is paralyzing but it is also irrational. Phobias around vehicles and driving are some of the most common phobias.
Driving phobia (or vehophobia) is a related to agoraphobia, which is the fear of open spaces. However, the fear of open spaces is not what scares people, it’s the fear of losing control. People with vehophobia fear being trapped in a traffic jam and unable to get out if they experience a panic attack, similarly, they may fear passing out, losing control of the vehicle, vomiting, or getting into an accident. For many people, driving next to big trucks can be very stressful, as can be merging on the freeway, or driving in the fast lane.
Driving Anxiety Symptoms
Symptoms of driving anxiety or vehophobia are similar to those of most other forms of anxiety: heart palpitations, perspiring and sweaty palms, disorientation, confusion, dizziness, dry mouth and shortness of breath. It is the classic “fight or flight response”. Occasionally, some people report feeling that they are going to die or go crazy. This experience can be very scary and may cause people to avoid driving in order to avoid the possibility of these kind of intense feelings. Of course, these are just feelings and emotions and even the most severe panic attacks usually do not cause any permanent effects.
However, these feelings can seriously impact a person’s ability to function in day to day life, especially if they need to drive to work or drive for a living.
Driving anxiety can start in many ways. Many times a person will have experienced an incident such as a car accident or “close call” and that memory imprint will cause the subconscious mind to be protective. Occasionally, although not often, this kind of anxiety can show up seemingly out of the blue. If you are a person that is prone to anxiety or fear, then driving may just be one of places where it shows up.
Further, experiencing low blood sugar can create a sense of anxiety which can become associated with driving, if you happen to be driving when the low blood sugar event takes place. Low blood sugar can be caused from not eating or after eating a meal high in simple carbs or sugar. This is especially true for those that have family histories of diabetes or hypoglycemia.
Simple anxiety, however, can turn into a phobia though avoidance. In other words, if you have a little bit of fear around driving and you decide to stop altogether, it then becomes a phobia, and the more you avoid it, the harder it becomes to do it. Fortunately, fear of driving is a learned behavior. If you have ever felt comfortable driving, then you can relearn how to be that way again.
Driving Anxiety Tips
Here are some tips to help you get back on the road feeling safe, comfortable, and confident. If you are currently not driving due to fear, I highly recommend that you seek help as vehophobia can be resolved relatively quickly with many different methods.
- Blood Sugar: Avoid driving on an empty stomach, and notice to how you feel after eating certain foods, especially those high in sugar or simple carbs (bread, pastries, soft drinks). Drinking alcohol the night before can also trigger blood sugar imbalances. Try to avoid driving while sleep deprived.
- Caffeine is a known trigger for those prone to anxiety. Many of my clients have gotten relief from their anxiety just by cutting back on caffeinated beverages.
- Manage your stress: A common cause for anxiety is extended periods of overwhelming stress. Do what you can to lower your stress level: exercise, take more breaks, meditation, yoga, etc.
- Affirmations: Write down some positive affirmation about your ability to drive and feel calm, comfortable and relaxed. For example “I’m calm, comfortable, and relaxed while driving and enjoying listening to music (the radio, audio books, etc.)” Read them right before you go to bed and right after you wake up (your most suggestible times), and say them out loud. Imagine yourself driving and feeling calm, comfortable, and relaxed. Don’t underestimate the power of this simple, mind reprogramming exercise.
- What really stops most people is the anticipatory anxiety: “Oh Em Gee, I need to drive to ___ tomorrow. It’s going to be so crowded. It’s rush hour. It’s going to be terrible. I’m already feeling it!” Instead, try saying something like “Yeah, if I feel anxious I know I can handle it.”
- Desensitization: This is a therapeutic technique which can help you become more comfortable with what is fearful. I use desensitization with clients while they are in hypnosis. It involves taking small steps to put yourself in situations that trigger anxiety. For example, if you can’t even drive your car, then you might start by sitting in the parked car in the driveway or on the street with the engine on but not moving. Notice whatever feelings come up and just be with it. Do that for longer periods of time until you can sit in the car, engine running, without anxiety. When you reach that point, and it may take a few hours or a few days, then drive around the block. If you feel anxiety, just pull over until it goes away, then continue driving. For freeway driving, you might try getting on one on ramp, staying in the slow lane, and then getting off on the next off ramp.
The most important thing to realize is that even though anxiety does not feel good, it will not kill you. It is your reaction to the feeling of anxiety that determines your outcome. Instead of fighting and resisting the anxiety, just allow it to be. Notice it, and see if you can observe it with a sense of curious detachment. Take deep breaths and try to remain in the present moment. Realize you have a tendency to create anxiety with your thoughts so try focusing on something else, like the environment, music, or the cars in front of you.
You don’t need to live with the anxiety; hypnosis, tapping, and other helpful modalities can be effective for allowing you to drive comfortably, confidently and safely. If you feel you need help in this area, feel free to contact me.
I'm doing good. I am not anxious at all with driving. I do not get panicky or overwhelmed thinking about it either. Prior to session, I wouldn't even want to think about going on the highway. I feel like something shifted in me to not have those thoughts anymore. Also, the monster (panic attacks) have not come back either.
Thank you for your help.
Wouldn't drive over bridges, but after one session....
"I tested myself driving on elevated roads. I still had the feeling, but it was only about a 1-2*, as opposed to the 8-10* it was before. I now plan my routes to encounter the elevated roads instead of avoiding them."
* On a scale of 0 to 10 Subjective Units of Distress (SUDS)