Coping with Driving Related Anxiety

| Christina Kurpiel LPC

Some common symptoms of anxiety include both physiological responses (increased heart rate, increased perspiration, dizziness, and shortness of breath) met with the cognitive responses (intense worry, fear that something bad will happen, and general feelings of unease and tension). When these symptoms occur before, during, or after driving, you may be experiencing driving related anxiety.

You don’t have to have experienced a car accident or automobile trauma to have this form of anxiety. It is important to remember that for all anxiety, avoiding the problem does nothing to fix it. In fact, avoiding the trigger (in this case avoiding driving all together) reinforces the idea that the only way to be safe is to not drive. Instead, there are ways to manage, improve, and eliminate driving related anxiety all together. Below are some useful tips that may help you better manage your symptoms and get you back on the road safely and confidently.

Preventative measures

Coffee, while considered a common part of our morning routine, is a known contributor to anxiety. Consider cutting back your caffeine intake prior to driving, or all together. Caffeine, like most substances, effects people differently, and for managing anxiety in any setting, it is important to know how these everyday substances impact you. Perhaps your driving anxiety is most at play during your morning commute, and all you have in your system is your morning coffee.

Another basic preventative measure is food! While it may not be as obvious as the Snickers commercials make it out to be (“you’re not you when you’re hungry,”) hunger does impact our mood and ability to regulate emotion, hence the clever marriage of the words “hungry” and “angry” to make “hangry.” Well known side effects of low blood sugar include feeling shaky, irritable, or anxious. If you are dealing with driving related anxiety it is important to take stock of these basic needs and make sure you are fueling your body appropriately before entering a potentially stressful situation.

Manage anticipation

Sometimes it’s not the fear or anxiety that arises while driving that causes the most distress, but it’s the build-up and anticipation that occurs beforehand. Anxiety survives and thrives through a feedback loop. Simplified, this means we experience an anxiety-provoking trigger, then a physiologic response (increased heart rate,) then the anxious thoughts about that response (“oh no, what’s happening?” or “something’s wrong with me,”) thereby reinforcing the anxiety trigger as something to be feared, leading to continued increase in physiologic symptoms, and so on. Before even entering the car we can convince ourselves that we are incapable, it’s not safe, and we are better off not even trying.

Affirmations

One way to manage anxiety prior to or while driving is through affirmations. Something I regularly tell clients who struggle with anxiety symptoms is that, while yes, it is incredibly uncomfortable, there has never been an instance of acute anxiety or panic that they haven’t come out of. It will not kill you, and you know this because here you are, alive, and reading this post. Explore what affirmations work best for you. Here are some to get you started:

“Even though I feel anxious, I know I’ll be okay, because I’ve been okay in the past.”
“I’m a good driver, I can handle this.”

Calming skills

Another important aspect of managing driving anxiety, whether it’s anticipatory or not, is though calming techniques. Explore ways you can physiologically calm your body and mind while driving and beforehand. This could be through deep breathing techniques, a calming music playlist, or perhaps through a daily yoga or meditation practice.

Seeking Professional Help

Managing driving anxiety with the assistance of a mental health professional is always an option. One common technique is desensitization through a “fear or exposure hierarchy.” Through this method, you and your therapist will construct a list of anxiety provoking events in increasing order from least distressing to most distressing. For driving related anxiety, items low on the list might be “thinking about driving” or “sitting in my parked car,” where something high on the list might be “driving 6+ hours out of state, by myself,” or “driving downtown during rush hour.” The idea behind this list is to become acclimated to lower stress events to the point where they no longer cause a reaction, or the reaction has significantly decreased. This makes is easier to move on to higher ranked events in the hopes of becoming able to effectively cope with and manage anxiety in the highest ranked situation.

If you experience driving related anxiety, or general anxiety that has become difficult to manage, it is never a bad idea to seek the support of a trained professional. Driving related anxiety is not something you just have to learn to live with. There are steps you can take to return to calm and confident driving.

Today's the day to make a change.