Wheelie Anxious - overcoming fear of driving
Do you take longer routes to avoid motorways, country lanes or even bridges? Have you cancelled a meeting, said no to a job or made an excuse to avoid a get together because you don’t want to drive?
If so, you are not alone. In fact, a survey conducted by Nissan, found that 39% of drivers felt scared or uncertain behind the wheel of a car.
But don’t we all get nervous when we drive?
Without a doubt driving is overwhelming. Being a driver involves great responsibility and there is so much to think about: having to focus on the road, being alert to possible dangers around you, all whilst deploying a number of skills.
So it's totally understandable to feel a little bit nervous when driving, especially if you are going somewhere new, there are diversions or lots of traffic. Most people would feel a little anxious and that can be natural.
I know I can get worked up if I'm driving somewhere I’ve never been before and I can worry about parking in busy places. However, it doesn’t stop me from going to meet friends or family as I know that worry is insignificant compared to the good time I will have when I finally get there.
If you get a little nervous when you get in the car then here are a couple of tips that can help:
Take a few moments to slow your breathing down before setting off. Breathing exercises like box breathing or inhaling for 4, holding for 6 and exhaling for 8 are good for activating your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you to relax and calm your nerves.
Plan ahead. Check out your route, have a Sat Nav ready and find out what the easiest place to park is. I like to look on Maps on my phone to check where I am going and what the parking is like so I know what to expect before I get there.
Try to (safely!) distract yourself by listening to music or an audiobook while you're driving. This can help to take your mind off of your worries and help you to stay focused on the road. I love to have my feel good playlist on so I can have a sing along, which always puts me in a good mood.
If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed while driving, then know that you can always pull over somewhere safe and take a break until you feel more comfortable continuing.
But I'm more than just ‘a little anxious’…
Up to 20% of people in the UK who hold a driving license, have what is considered a phobia around driving. They are triggered by the fear of something going wrong or them doing something that causes them to crash or seriously hurt someone.
‘Every time I thought about driving I catastophised about all the things that could go wrong. I thought about what would happen if I knocked someone over and hurt them, if a dog ran out into the road and I killed it or if someone crashed into me and I was trapped in my car. I continually told myself that I was a rubbish driver and it was safer if I didn’t drive.’ - Emma
The problem is that the more we focus on the problem, catastrophise and negatively forecast the future, the worse that anxiety becomes. Our mind doesn’t know the difference between imagination and reality and so every time we think about a negative scenario, our brain thinks we are actually living in that moment. It causes surges of stress hormones to flood our body, leaving us feeling even more anxious.
This fear can become so great that it eventually stops people from going to places, whether that’s work, social events or even important appointments. And this is exactly what happened to one of my clients.
‘The thought of getting behind the wheel made me feel sick and on several occasions I was actually sick. I would have panic attacks thinking about the driving to my mum’s and eventually it was just easier to stop driving. This didn’t stop my anxiety though. I felt so guilty for not visiting and soon I was anxiety being a passenger in the car too.’ - Mollie
So what is driving anxiety?
While driving anxiety is not a diagnosable mental health disorder, the symptoms experienced are very real, powerful, and can get progressively worse if suppressed or ignored.
For some people they have a clear and obvious reason for their fear of driving due to being directly involved in an accident or witnessing one as a bystander. However, most have no specific reason for why they experience anxiety.
It can also impact people in a variety of ways and their fear can involve different elements of driving. For example, the anxiety may be linked to driving across bridges, driving late at night, being on the motorway and for some the fear stops them from not being able to get behind the wheel at all.
Driving anxiety symptoms
Driving anxiety symptoms can range from mild discomfort to extreme distress and there can be links between symptoms experienced by someone with a Generalised Anxiety Disorder Typical symptoms may include (but are not limited to):
Increased heart rate and breathing.
Excessive sweating and trembling
Shortness of breath or hyperventilation (this can be likened to a panic attack.)
You may also notice that you feel exhausted after driving, even if it’s only a short car trip. This is because your brain has been on high alert, leaving you feeling tense, drained and in need of ample time to recover.
There are a number of names for the fear of driving. People who suffer with this experience crippling anxiety whenever they are behind the wheel of a vehicle and sometimes even as a passenger.
This can cause significant feelings of frustration and overwhelm as it can not only have an impact on an individual’s everyday life but can also affect family members. For one of my clients, it was a sore point of conversation because her family struggled to be sympathetic towards her anxiety. Every time they had a family event she would need to be picked up and dropped home even though she lived the furthest away from them all. Overtime it meant she rarely saw them because she didn’t want to be an inconvenience and this impacted her relationships with them. It left her feeling lonely and depressed.
If left untreated it can affect your sense of freedom and cause you to feel isolated - which is not good at all for our mental health as human beings need the company of others in order to thrive.
And the key thing with fear and phobias… are that they are usually not rational.
Most people who have driving anxiety know that they shouldn’t be so scared… but regardless of how many times they tell themselves it is going to be ok or have someone tell them that they’ve got more chance of being in an accident as a pedestrian (statistically true but in no means helpful so avoid saying this to someone who does have a fear of driving!) they are still very afraid.
This is because that fear is located within the primitive part of our brain. And this part is not rational! It doesn’t need to be. Its job is to keep us safe and away from danger. When we’re feeling anxious, our brain perceives that there is danger around us. The amygdala (an almond-shaped part of our brain) is triggered and it sends the signal for stress hormones and adrenaline to be released… and cue all the anxiety symptoms. And the more we experience this, the more we become ‘stuck’ in our primitive brain and anxiety becomes our go to response whenever we get in the car or think about driving.
But did you know that the only two fears that you are born with are a fear of falling and a fear of loud noises?
Every other fear is learnt. And so the good news is… if we can learn a fear then we can also unlearn it too!
What can you do about your fear of driving?
For some people, driving-related anxiety can resolve itself over time with more experience on the road. However, others may need further support, particularly if that fear has stopped them from completely driving at all. If the latter is the case, then there are a number of ways to help you deal with your anxiety and get you back on the road again.
A gentle way (and I may well be bias here) is Solution Focused Hypnotherapy.
Over the last couple of months I have been seeing more and more women in my practice looking to Hypnotherapy to help them with their driving-related anxiety.
I'm happy to share that all of the women I have worked with have had amazing results and have happily reported that they are now confidently back on the road and enjoying their newfound freedom once again. One of those lovely ladies hadn’t driven in over eight years prior to seeing me.
The process is based on current neuroscience research and unlike exposure therapies or counselling, it does not require you to delve into the past or focus on the problem. If your goal is to get back in control of your feelings and feel calm behind the wheel of a car then that it was we focus on. We focus on regaining confidence in your abilities.
As part of the sessions, I help my clients to understand the root causes associated with their anxiety (and no we don’t have to delve into your past – like I mentioned above lots of people have no idea where their fear comes from). By understanding how your brain works, it helps you to develop the appropriate coping skills to reduce your symptoms. The great thing is that it not only specifically deals with driving anxiety but your overall confidence too.
So whether you are a slightly nervous driver or someone who has completely avoided driving because of your worries please know that you can flip the script and ditch that anxiety when you get behind the wheel.
Just like the lovely ladies I have worked with, you too can feel calm, confident and in control.
If you would like to know more about how Solution Focused Hypnotherapy can help you, then get in touch using the button below to book a free 15 minute clarity call with me.