Driving anxiety

Originally Published: July 25, 2008
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Dear Alice,

I am 20 years old, mature, responsible, and independent — except for one thing: I haven't yet received my driver's license! This is unusual in the suburban town where I live; everyone receives it by 16 or 17. I tell people I never got around to it and it's not necessary to drive when I'm at college, but really, I am terrified of driving. I received my permit a couple years ago, but it's probably already expired by now. I practiced driving through parking lots and empty streets with my mom that summer, but I was always so nervous and didn't make much progress.

I've always had anxiety about cars and driving, but then I was in two accidents and now I can't fathom driving at all. In one, my friend's car collided with another car which was speeding at an intersection. In the other, I was hit by a car while riding my bike. Both times there were luckily only minor injuries and some stitches in the emergency room. Still, now when I'm in a car with someone, I constantly think there's going to be an accident. It has gotten to the point where people are nervous driving with me because I freak out about dangers that are not there, such as thinking we're going to collide with a car, a fence, or anything! I know it's anxiety but it seems so real. It is getting frustrating over vacations for my parents and friends (and me) to have to drive me everywhere. I can't even imagine driving on a highway...I have compulsive thoughts about violent collisions with trucks and dying on impact. Also, I have a childhood history of OCD and anxiety.

How can I reduce my anxiety and begin to work on driving and preparing for the road test? Thanks.

—Stuck in childhood

Dear Stuck in childhood,

Some people suffer for years and years with thoughts, feelings, and avoidance behaviors like the ones you describe. You've taken a bold step by starting to seek solutions. This courage will really help you in achieving your goal of getting your driver's license and riding comfortably while others are at the wheel.

Mental health providers know it's not uncommon for past experiences to latch on in our memories. It's often said that, the more life-threatening an event, the stronger the memory can be. Brain scans show that strong memories of near-death experiences can have physiological and structural bases in the brain. The brain can start to over-react to perceived threats in the environment. From what you said, it's pretty clear that your brain associates driving and riding, as a passenger, with the threat of harm.

Given your past experiences, you may be reacting with a fear response out of a sincere desire to protect yourself. Humans have a built-in fear response that kicks in when danger looms. This response serves to motivate us to fight or avoid risky situations. When the fear response happens in the presence of actual danger, it can be adaptive and life-saving. The problem is, as you note, you think your fear response is out of sync with the actual likelihood of danger — you're more fearful than you want to be. This has virtually paralyzed you from achieving an important goal of yours — getting your license and driving independently.

Also, your friends and family are bothered by your hyper-vigilance. When emotions, thoughts, and behaviors prevent us from achieving important goals or doing things that we know we could/should be doing to participate in life… that can be a signal that we'd probably benefit by reaching out for help. How would you feel about contacting a mental health provider who could offer you support and guidance as you work toward achieving your goals? If this seems like something you'd be interested in, here are some resources for you:

  • If you're a student, you can make an appointment at your school's counseling department or mental health clinic. At Columbia, students can call Counseling and Psychological Services at x4-2878.
  • Student or not, you can check out the National Institute of Mental Health's page Getting Help: Locate Services. This offers more information on finding a counselor in your area.
  • If you've got health insurance, your plan may have a list of counselors and a procedure for connecting with services. That information should be on their website or brochure. You could also call the plan to get more guidance.

The great thing is that you seem highly motivated to buck this wacky fear response. Research shows that psychotherapy can help break troubling emotional, cognitive, and behavioral patterns when a client is willing and ready to change. While you ponder the next step, it might help to remind yourself that your goal of getting your driver's license is achievable. There's no doubt that it'll take some hard work. If you're willing to reach out a little further, some outside help could give you the boost you're looking for.

Alice