Anxiety when driving is a common experience with those who worry or stress, and can be especially evident after a car accident.  Something scary happened to you or a loved one while on the road and you are now stressed about driving or being a passenger when others drive.  You get in the car, and then you start feeling it.  Your breathing starts becoming rapid or you have difficulty breathing. You start to sweat, feel jittery, hands tingling, tense muscles, cry, feel unease or dread, and get frightening “what if” thoughts.  What if I have a heart attack and cause an accident?  What if I have a panic attack while driving?  If you begin to drive, cars around you seem to be going too fast, so you slow down.  You start feeling dizzy or things seem surreal.

Welcome to the fight or flight response, your autonomic nervous system sensing danger and preparing your body to fight or get the heck out of there. These physical sensations can be so uncomfortable they cause you feel afraid to drive in certain conditions, like in traffic or at specific times of the day, on highways or during windy or rainy weather.   Maybe it’s distance- you feel frightened driving over 5 miles from home.   It starts getting worse. Someone is having a party but since it’s across town you choose not to go. The thought of driving is so stressful you limit it to just necessary driving, and then that becomes so uncomfortable you just don’t drive at all.  You restrict your driving so much it is impairing your relationships, your work, and your ability to live your life consistent to what you value.  You start questioning yourself and worry about your behaviors, and then you judge yourself harshly over your reactions.

This avoidance behavior is the anxiety just taking over.  Especially if you have driven prior to this time, your brain is activating the threat response without current evidence of threat. It is misfiring the danger signals.  Each time you avoid driving it reinforces the incorrect idea in your brain that you are unsafe, so the anxiety gets worse and you feed the fear. Of course, it is possible that any time you get in a moving vehicle you may get in an accident.  But the likelihood is slim if you have years of driving experience and are not impaired by substances, use common caution, and continue using the skills you have developed from years of driving.  So how do you drive again without freaking out?  Exposure.  You just have to drive, again and again, and prove to your brain you will be safe. 

Understanding a bit about your brain will help you do what it takes to help you drive again.  You can’t fault your brain for trying to keep you safe.  It’s got millions of years of evolution behind it to help you/us survive.  It takes a previously frightening situation and then goes by that for future decisions when it comes to safety.  That’s why sometimes driving fears aren’t even the result of an accident or car related activity.  It’s just the brain’s perception of threat.   And that perception can be irrational, and frankly, wrong.

To help you drive again, you may want to take small steps. This totally depends on you and your unique relationship with your anxiety.  You could just plan a time and drive, or you can take it more slowly and take it a step at a time. Step one may be remembering the multitudes of times (or the last time) you drove from point A to point B safely.   Step two could be to look at pictures or videos of cars driving, or sit in your car without driving and get used to that physical feeling of being in the car, tolerating the discomfort of the physical sensations that arise. Step three may be to go on short drives repeated times, slowly taking on more miles.  Step 4 could be driving at busy times, in traffic, on larger roadways, or at night.  Repeated exposure reminds your brain that you are safe and resets that threat response so it’s less sensitive and perceives the situation more realistically.

Working on the anxious response is hard work.  Reward yourself for your effort.  Be kind to yourself and show yourself compassion for enduring it.  Know I’m here for you if you want guided support on this journey.

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