Driving anxiety

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, 

Even though it feels like everyone around you is driving around without a care, the thoughts, feelings, and avoidance behaviors you describe are far from uncommon. Driving anxiety or phobias could have a variety of sources including prior motor vehicle crashes and a history of anxiety. In fact, researchers estimate that somewhere between 8 and 30 percent of people in the United States who were involved in a car crash report post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), emotional stress, anxiety, or phobias. These responses may also include thoughts about worst-case scenarios, avoiding driving in specific conditions related to the crash (such as on bridges or while raining), or avoiding driving altogether. Since driving anxiety may manifest in different ways depending on the person and circumstances, you might consider working with a mental health professional to help untangle your specific triggers. While many people may choose alternatives to driving such as walking, biking, and public transportation, others may desire the independence and flexibility of driving on their own. If you decide that you want to become a less anxious passenger or even get your own driver’s license, a therapist may be able to help you navigate getting back on the road.  

So, where may this fear be coming from? When the brain perceives the threat of harm, the body often triggers its built-in fear response in order to escape that situation and get to safety. The fear response in the presence of actual danger can be adaptive and lifesaving. When it’s out of sync with the true likelihood of harm, it may feel unsettling and stifling. Some people, like yourself, experience this with driving. In this case, merely thinking about or engaging in driving triggers the body’s fear response, leading to symptoms of anxiety, such as increased heart rate, fast breathing, sweating, and nausea. Common reasons for this driving-associated anxiety include: 

  • Past negative experiences such as car crashes, driving in a bad storm, or getting lost 
  • Unfamiliar situations such as driving in a new location  
  • Feelings of being trapped when stuck in traffic or on a bridge  
  • Fears of losing control or dying 

Adapted from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America

People looking to reduce driving anxiety might benefit from various forms of therapy to shift thinking patterns and work towards driving-related goals. Often, the first step when getting over an anxiety or phobia is to first pinpoint the reasons underlying the disproportionate fear response. To start, you might try listing all of the scenarios that cause you to panic to see whether you’re able to identify any common trends. It might also be helpful to think about why you want to conquer this fear. With this information, a mental health professional may be able to help you reduce your driving-related anxiety and work towards your goals using various techniques, such as:  

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This is a type of therapy common for treating anxiety that focuses on understanding and changing negative thought patterns. This could include building skills to ease physical symptoms or reframing compulsive thoughts associated with driving.  
  • Exposure therapy: This is a method of introducing the fear-inducing stimuli slowly in small doses to help overcome it. This could involve many gradual steps over a long period of time, such as first sitting in a parked car, then turning on the motor, then doing a couple of loops around an empty parking lot, and so on, all working towards the ultimate goal, whether that’s being a less anxious passenger or learning to drive yourself. A newer approach to exposure therapy, virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET), uses the same underlying theories but tackles the fear-inducing stimuli in an online environment. While this method has only been researched in small studies, it’s so far proven effective in reducing panic attacks, phobias, and PTSD in people with driving phobias. 

Also, you mentioned that your friends and family are bothered by your hypervigilance. When emotions, thoughts, and behaviors prevent people from achieving goals or fully participating in life, it may be a signal that they could benefit from reaching out for help. How would you feel about contacting a mental health professional who could offer you support and guidance as you work toward achieving your goals? If this seems like an option you'd be interested in, here are some resources for you: 

  • If you're a student, many colleges and universities offer counseling or mental health services. 
  • Student or not, the National Institute of Mental Health's page Getting Help: Locate Services offers more information on finding a counselor in your area. 
  • If you've got health insurance, your plan may have a list of mental health professionals and a procedure for connecting patients with mental health services. That information will likely be on your health insurance’s website or brochure, and many of them have phone numbers you could call for additional guidance. 

It takes a tremendous amount of courage to be open about your fears and to seek information about their sources. If you decide that you want to overcome your fear of driving, working with a mental health provider may provide you with support and guidance. Research shows that psychotherapy helps break entrenched emotional, cognitive, and behavioral patterns if you’re ready and willing to change. While you ponder the next step, it might help to remind yourself that getting your driver's license is achievable, if you decide that’s a step you want to take. There's no doubt that it'll take time and patience, but if you're willing to reach out a little further, some outside help could give you a boost. 

Last updated Aug 06, 2021
Originally published Jul 24, 2008

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