Your question: Why do I have driving anxiety all of a sudden?

My reply:

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

Driving is an everyday activity for millions of people around the world. However, that does not prevent many from finding the act of driving unsettling, frightening and anxious. Anxiety and fear are necessary in everyday life, yet sometimes they can feel so intrusive and disturbing that they impede daily functioning.

The problem with driving anxiety is not the anxiety itself, but the consequences it generates in the person. Someone with driving anxiety will avoid not only driving a car for fear of having an accident, eventually their anxiety will generalize to car travel in general.

It is necessary to reconcile your fears, accept them and then treat them. Therefore, it is necessary to identify the origin of your driving anxiety, because even if it seems that it “comes from nowhere” it has a justified origin. You should not feel ashamed because it is a very common and understandable fear, and there are strategies that will allow you to cope with this feeling of 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:

  • 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.

What are the causes of your driving anxiety?

Often anxiety symptoms appear in the body that you may perceive as “sudden”, as you consider that they have appeared out of nowhere because you were recently “fine”. However, no anxiety problem appears out of nowhere. Everything has an origin even if you do not consciously notice it. In relation to driving anxiety, the causes can be various, and are related to anxiety problems in general. The basis of the fear of driving is centered on dysfunctional thoughts generated during episodes of anxiety, which evoke deep fear in people. Some of these causes are:

Traumatic experiences

If you have experienced a traumatic event related to driving in the past, it is likely that this is the source of your current driving anxiety. Some traumatic experiences are: car accidents, a loved one dying in a crash, witnessing a severe car accident, getting lost while driving or having a panic attack while driving.

Anxiety problems

Generalized anxiety disorder is an anxiety problem in which the person suffers from intense and recurrent fear of various aspects of life. In the case of driving, people with generalized anxiety may find it very difficult to concentrate on driving because they are overcome by overwhelming thoughts of car accidents and tragedies.

Fear of death

Anxiety about driving is closely related to anxiety about death. This is because many people associate driving with the possibility of a fatal accident. Therefore, your mind turns the idea of driving into a guaranteed risk that is best avoided so as not to hurt yourself or your loved ones.

Fear of losing control

Another common concern in driving anxiety relates to the fear of losing control of the vehicle. Even if you are a person who drives cautiously and responsibly, anxiety can make you feel that at any moment you could do something wrong and cause an accident on the road.

What can you do if you have driving anxiety?

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.

However, I would like to tell you that just like any fear or form of anxiety, the worry related to driving has a solution, and there are strategies that you can implement to feel better about yourself and take back control of your life, if you feel that it has been paralyzed by your anxiety:

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.

Identify what makes you anxious

There may be specific things that cause you driving anxiety. Maybe it’s driving in certain areas of the city or driving at night. If you can identify these anxiety triggers, try to avoid them in your day-to-day driving by adapting your routes.

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 (1) 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…

Although fear of driving may feel embarrassing and appear without apparent cause, this is not the case. The body and mind are closely related, therefore an emotional problem may not manifest itself until some time later in any area of our daily performance. Having anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of, on the contrary, it makes us human, and through its treatment it allows us to connect with what is constantly repressed.

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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