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6 Ways to Tackle Driving Anxiety

            Most everyone who has driven can relate to the feelings of anxiety that can come from getting behind the wheel; this is especially true for new drivers, or those who have previously been in a driving accident.

For many, this anxiety is fleeting, only occurring during unfamiliar or unsafe circumstances. However, to some, this fear can be debilitating, leading to panic attacks or overwhelming anxiety. This panic can be detrimental if driving is an essential part of someone’s day-to-day life.

So, what to do if driving is causing you such distress? Keep reading for 6 strategies that can help you kick driving anxiety to the curb.

How to Find the Right Support

Humans are social creatures and, as such, we grow and heal the best when we are supported by the right people.

If you are suffering from driving anxiety, it’s important to find people in your life who you can turn to for support. This can be friends, family, mentors, peers, etc.

Finding people in your life who you can trust is the first step. The second step is being able to identify and communicate your needs.

Ask yourself what you need from someone else to begin tackling your anxiety. Remember, others can’t read your mind, so it’s important to be able to articulate exactly what you need!

For some people, it’s beneficial to simply talk things through, for others, more tangible support could look like asking a support person to carpool with you. Support looks different for everybody, and there is absolutely NO shame in asking for what you need.

Mindfulness Practices That Can Calm Any Driver

Mindfulness is a multifunctional practice that can oftentimes get a back rap in mainstream media, which portrays it as a bizarre, abstract concept that can only be attained by yoga-loving Buddhists. 

Mindfulness can be practiced by anyone – even you. As with any skill, it can take a bit of practice to get used to, but it’s a skill that can be used anytime, anywhere.

So, what is mindfulness? All it boils down to being in the present moment; fully noticing your current internal experience and surroundings, while letting go of rumination about the past or future.

Why mindfulness? Well, according to psychologists Daphne Davis, PhD and Jeffrey Hayes, PhD there are quite a few benefits backed by research:

  • Stress Reduction
  • Reduced Rumination
  • Increased Focus
  • Less Emotional Reactivity
  • Strengthens Working Memory
  • Reinforces Positive Self Expression
  • Higher Quality of Life

Now that you understand the benefits of mindfulness, how can you apply this to your driving anxiety?

According to peer reviewed research, people’s minds, on average, wander 40% of the time while driving. Have you ever driven a familiar route and arrived at your destination, but have no clue how you got there? Our bodies can easily go on autopilot, which gives our minds time to ruminate and overthink.

Next time you drive, pay attention to what’s going on around you:

            How does the steering wheel feel in your hands?

            What does the road look like in front of you?

            Turn off the radio and listen to the sounds around you.

            Take deep breaths, making sure you breathe out for longer than you breathe in.

If you notice your mind wandering, bring the focus back to the present moment.

Grounding Techniques to Use While You’re Driving

The way you physically feel affects your levels of anxiety. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) has a module that can be used to ground yourself in times of distress. Some DBT techniques that you can try while driving are:

            Paced Breathing: Inhale for 5 seconds, hold for 5, exhale for 7

            Paired Muscle Relaxation: Do a body scan and notice any tension in your muscles. Practice tensing and relaxing your various muscle groups

            Turn Up the Air: A change in temperature (especially a cold shock!) is a good way to bring you out of a highly emotional state

            5-4-3-2-1: Using all your senses, list five things you see, four things you feel, three things you hear, two things you smell, and one thing you taste

When your body is relaxed, you’ll feel relaxed. Not only will this decrease your overall anxiety, but it will also improve your driving quality.

Setting Goals and Driving Exposures

Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is a form of therapy that introduces someone to a highly stressful situation and forces them to sit through the discomfort.

To most, this sounds like an awful idea – the whole point of getting rid of anxiety is to not feel those uncomfortable emotions!

While it may seem counterintuitive, doing something that scares you is oftentimes the most effective way of overcoming it and, the longer you avoid something, the scarier it becomes. 

Think of a child who is scared to go down a slide. They’ll furiously shake their head ‘no’ as they sit and watch other kids having fun. They’re forced to face their fear when their parent picks them up and puts them down the slide. At first, this may make the child cry, but over time, they’ll realise that sliding at the park is fun.

It’s the same concept with driving – if you practice sitting through distress, it will pass.

Set small goals for yourself.

Maybe your first goal is simply sitting behind the wheel or driving around your neighbourhood. Go at your own pace until you feel comfortable enough to set the next goal.

Skilfully Checking the Facts to Quell Your Fears

Another DBT skill is ‘check the facts’; though it may sound simple, if you take the time to sit down and work through it, it can be a very powerful tool.

The first part of this skill is identifying what your fears are. Put them down on paper. Simply saying that driving makes you anxious is too broad:

            What about driving makes you anxious? What is your anxiety telling you?

Once you have your fears written out, go through each one and evaluate how appropriate your emotional response is to the facts of the situation.

For example, say you are convinced you’re going to die in a car crash. Well, according to the National Safety Council of America, you’re more likely to die from falling than from being a car occupant.

Does that mean you’re going to swear off stairs for the rest of your life? Or never wear laces again from fear of tripping? Probably not.

While all drivers should be aware of the risks associated with driving, being hyper-vigilant or overly anxious isn’t a healthy response.

Your emotions are valid, but when emotions are causing us distress, checking the facts can help keep things in perspective.

Changing Your Mindset With Positive Affirmations

Our brains, though brilliant, are quite gullible, meaning they believe what we tell them. If you tell yourself you’re good or bad at something, you’re going to eventually believe that to be true.

Understand that thoughts aren’t facts; detach from any negative thoughts you may have, such as “I’m not a good driver” or “I can’t drive on the highway”.

In the psychology realm, this is called cognitive defusion, and you can practice this by simply noticing the negative thought you’re having and telling yourself “this thought has no power.”

Instead of letting your head fill with anxiety and negativity, you can practice saying positive affirmations. Affirmations assert something to be true and, if repeated enough, will be believed as such by your brain.

It may seem silly at first, but write out a list of affirmations and, when you feel your anxiety rising, read them out loud. It has been shown that repeating positive affirmations can generate a more positive affect and reduce anxiety.

Some sample affirmations:

“I am in control of my vehicle”“I am a good driver and can make it to my destination safely”

“I am able to relax and enjoy this drive”

“I am a part of millions of capable and safe drivers”

“My anxieties leave me as I am confident in my driving abilities”

When to Seek Professional Help 

While these skills and tips have been shown to reduce anxiety, everyone’s needs are different. If you find that your symptoms are interfering in your daily life or causing you high levels of distress, it is suggested that you seek professional help from a psychologist. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is considered one of the best modalities for treating driving anxiety, and medication can also be used to manage high levels of anxiety.

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