Fear of Driving: Why Am I Terrified of Doing Something I Used to Enjoy?
by Ken Goodman, LCSW, and Michelle Dadoun, MA, MFT
It’s easy to understand how a major car accident would cause someone to fear driving, but most driving fears have nothing to do with accidents. The most comfortable drivers, those who once loved cruising along the coast, weaving through canyons, and jetting down highways, are now baffled by their avoidance of these places.
The new norm is sticking to small streets within one’s comfort zone, relying on others to drive, and avoiding night driving, left turns, freeways, tunnels, and bridges. Driving phobics often say to themselves, “I used to drive everywhere. I don’t understand.”
Here are the top 5 reasons people fear driving:
- Past negative experiences: Car accidents are the most common negative driving experience, and can be the most horrific, but there are others. Driving through a bad storm, being a victim of road rage, getting lost, and being stuck in traffic for an unusually long period of time are all negative driving experiences.When anxiety or panic occurs in these situations, the person may replay the experience in their mind and worry it will happen again. The repetitive thoughts and fears may then cause the person to avoid driving, which only makes the anxiety worse. Even being a witness to a horrible car accident can trigger a belief that they could be next.
- Fear of getting lost or going outside of one’s comfort zone: For some driving phobics, driving to a familiar location is no big deal. But give them directions to a new location, near or far, and their anxiety goes through the sunroof. What if I get lost? What if my car runs out of gas? What if my cell phone gets no reception? What if I can’t find a parking spot? It is not just the fear that something bad will happen; it is the fear that something bad will happen in an unfamiliar place, far from home, and no know will be there to help.
- Fear of being trapped: Being stuck in traffic is an irritant no one likes, but if you have a fear of panic attacks or a fear of losing control of your bowels, traffic can be a terrifying experience. People with a history of panic attacks tend to avoid situations where they can’t get out quickly, including freeways. “What if I’m stuck in traffic and I have a panic attack? I’m trapped!” For this reason, they tend to avoid freeways altogether. The reasoning is the same for people who fear losing control of their bowels and experiencing the ultimate embarrassing moment.Anxiety targets certain organs in the body. While some may experience racing heart, others may experience diarrhea or the need to go to the bathroom. The mere thought of being stuck in traffic without quick access to a bathroom causes anxiety, which stimulates the bowels, resulting in more anxiety and freeway avoidance.
- Fear of going too fast and losing control: Whether it’s a gymnast walking on a balance beam or a waiter carrying drinks on a tray, tasks like these are performed carefully. When you add an element of death, like tightrope walking, you perform the task slowly. Unfortunately, that is something you can’t do on a freeway. A freeway is built for speed, and therein lies the problem. Feeling the wrath of other drivers for going too slow, there is intense pressure to accelerate, but your mind and body won’t let you push down on the gas pedal.Clinching the steering wheel for dear life, your heart races and your body sweats. The out-of-control physical symptoms of anxiety make it impossible to trust yourself to drive safely. The fear of losing control and swerving into another lane is enough to make you drive on surface streets, even if takes hours longer to arrive at your destination.
The sensation of losing control of the car is made worse when speed is combined with curves in the road. Avoidance can extend to other places where losing control could be fatal, such as bridges, tunnels, and canyons.
- Fear of fatalities: The basis of all anxiety is an exaggeration of danger and an underestimation of one’s ability. Fearful drivers might not trust their own ability (as discussed above), or the fear may stem from their lack of faith in others’ driving abilities. Either way, they imagine the worst.The active imagination of the driving phobic can result in the most gruesome car crashes… in their mind. You don’t have to be a victim of a previous car accident to imagine being in one. If those thoughts and images are replayed often enough, particularly while driving, driving may become a thing of the past.
Getting Past the Anxiety
Conquering the fear of driving IS possible, but it usually requires help. The gold standard for treatment of any anxiety disorder is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which focuses on the thoughts and behaviors causing the anxiety. The first step is to identify your specific fear from the above list.
What is your specific anxiety all about? Then write down all the reasons you want to conquer the fear, why you want to drive so badly, for example, and how motivated you are. Overcoming any fear means you must face it, which requires a great deal of motivation.
A CBT therapist will help you deal with the thoughts that are causing your physical symptoms, and teach you skills to relax your body and quiet your mind. The therapist will also explain the mindset required to face a fear, and coach you in how to face it. For some, working with a private driving instructor may be helpful in order to feel safe initially.
Fear of driving affects all aspects of one’s life, from personal to professional. Overcoming this type of anxiety with a qualified professional will take work and bravery, but it’s well worth it in the end!
The Anxiety Solution Series: Your Guide to Overcoming Panic, Worry, Compulsion, and Fear is a step-by-step audio program based on the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and can help fearful individuals overcome their fear of driving.