Your question: Why do I get anxious driving on the highway?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy.

Anxiety is an everyday experience. We all experience it to a greater or lesser extent in different day-to-day situations. Be it work, studies, interpersonal relationships or insecurities with ourselves.

There are no “silly” or insignificant reasons why someone might feel anxiety. Driving is an activity that many feel is automatic. It is part of the daily lives of millions of people who drive from home to work or from home to run errands.

Driving on highways can be stressful. It has been shown (1) that the act of driving in general generates anxiety symptoms in people, even if they have driving experience. Anxiety is increased if the person drives on busy highways and traffic jams. This results in exaggerated safety behaviors or driving concerns and hostile and aggressive behavior behind the wheel (2).

In any circumstance, anxiety is related to dysfunctional and usually catastrophic thoughts. When driving, people may have automatic thoughts related to accidents or driving-related catastrophes that can make them feel abruptly anxious.

It is therefore common for your anxiety to appear when driving on a highway. Your mind probably says that this is the place where there is a greater chance of a crash or car accident, or you are attacked by the worry of getting stuck in freeway traffic and not making it to a responsibility or commitment on time.

Either way, you are not to blame for feeling anxious while driving, or at any other time. It is not possible to stop feeling anxiety completely, but people can learn strategies to cope with it, preventing it from diminishing their quality of life.

Driving is necessary for day-to-day living, so driving anxiety is something that must be confronted. You have the power and ability to do this, and with the right professional help, you can achieve your goal of overcoming driving anxiety.

What does it feel like to have driving anxiety?

The feeling of driving anxiety is unpleasant because like any other form of anxiety, you experience unpleasant physical and psychological symptoms. Whether you are afraid or anxious of heights, an animal or the dark, the way anxiety works is the same: it sends a signal to our brain that there is a threat or danger and our brain causes us to react physically and emotionally. Some common symptoms of driving anxiety are (3):

  • Persistent and excessive fear of driving or being in a car.
  • Fear of being in a car accident.
  • Fear of running over someone while driving.
  • Fear of being in a crash and having your passengers killed in the accident.
  • Fear of dying.
  • Tachycardia and sweating when you get into a car.
  • Avoidance of using the car.
  • Preferring to walk long distances instead of using the car.
  • Fear of passing out or falling asleep while driving.

Why do you feel anxiety when driving on highways?

Some reasons why you feel anxiety when driving on a freeway are:

Fear of an accident

Because there are a greater number of cars, freeways are associated with a greater number of car accidents. It is likely that your anxiety about driving on a freeway is related to the fear of being in an accident, either a car hitting you or you hitting another car.

Traumatic experience

If you have experienced a traumatic driving experience on a freeway, such as a car accident or a multiple vehicle collision, you are likely to feel anxiety in the future when driving on a freeway again because of the fear of experiencing another accident.

Traffic and stress

On freeways, traffic can be long and annoying. Vehicle congestion on freeways is one of the main reasons people arrive late to their destinations. If you usually get stuck in traffic on a freeway on your way to work, school or any other daily responsibility, you will associate anxiety with freeways.

Why do you feel anxiety when driving on highways?

If you have recently experienced a traumatic experience related to driving, I strongly recommend that you see a mental health professional, as in that case your anxiety or fear of driving will be more severe, and will require therapeutic techniques and strategies to solve it. Some strategies you can employ to reduce the feeling of anxiety when driving on highways, or when driving in general, are:

Breathing and relaxation

When you are driving on the freeway and you feel anxiety taking over your body, it is useful to do simple breathing exercises while sitting in your car. Inhale through your nose for three seconds and exhale through your mouth for another three seconds.

While doing this, repeat to yourself in your mind, or out loud, phrases that give you security, for example “I am safe in my car, nothing will happen to me, I will arrive safely at my destination”. Don’t close your eyes if you are driving, and stay alert to the road at all times.

Create distractions and modify your schedule

When you’re stuck in freeway traffic, there’s not much you can do. Therefore, the measures you need to take are a function of avoiding rush hour traffic, modifying your departure times from home or work, or mentally preparing yourself to spend an indefinite amount of time in traffic. It is useful to create distractions while you wait, relieving your sense of anxiety, such as writing, drawing, listening to music or doing simple activities in the car.

Traffic and stress

On freeways, traffic can be long and annoying. Vehicle congestion on freeways is one of the main reasons people arrive late to their destinations. If you usually get stuck in traffic on a freeway on your way to work, school or any other daily responsibility, you will associate anxiety with freeways.

Question your thoughts

Your thoughts are not reality. People constantly put together mental scenarios caused by anxiety and their deepest fears. These scenarios are almost always catastrophic and dysfunctional, causing people to go into a trance of nervousness and fear. The same thing happens with your driving anxiety. You have thoughts that tell you that you are going to have an accident or lose control of the vehicle. These thoughts must be confronted through internal dialogue.

If your thought is “I’m going to have a crash because I’m a bad driver” it will help to reflect and remember how you have performed as a driver in the time you are driving. Giving logical answers to these baseless and unfounded thoughts helps to face them.

Alternate your means of transportation

It is possible that driving anxiety has completely paralyzed you in your daily performance, preventing you from using the car altogether. One technique you can implement is to go from less to more transportation use. You can start using buses and subways for a while, then you can use cabs. You can also use bicycles. Alternating these modes of transportation will prepare you psychologically to eventually resume the use of your vehicle.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

In cognitive behavioral therapy, which can only be provided by a qualified psychologist, people with driving anxiety learn to confront their fears by modifying dysfunctional thoughts related to driving and exposure therapy, which seeks to help them cope with their fears and worries. A 2020 study (4) done on people with driving phobia showed that in a period of approximately 9 therapeutic sessions, people had radically decreased their anxiety or fear related to driving.

In my experience…

Feeling anxiety when driving on a highway, or driving in general, is a common problem. Although others, or you yourself, may want to belittle it, it is a real problem that needs attention to prevent it from paralyzing you and preventing you from performing everyday activities.

Anxiety management, like any other anxiety, is combated by confronting dysfunctional thoughts, exchanging them for reason and logic, and managing the associated emotions. It is necessary that you accept anxiety as part of your life, but not as something that will determine you.

I believe you have the ability to improve and heal these feelings of discomfort you are experiencing now. The fact that you are seeking professional help through this message proves it to me, and I applaud you for making that decision and being on track to improve your mental health and overall, your physical health

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