Driving connects people to the places they need to be, but it can also result in a variety of anxiety symptoms for some individuals. When you sit behind the wheel, you may feel your heart and mind start to race. Your palms might feel clammy as your mind leaps from imagining an accident to getting lost. You might find this feeling of dread takes over before you even get into the car.
While this experience can be incredibly upsetting and disruptive, you are not alone. Many other people suffer from driving anxiety, but it is possible to understand this condition and find driving anxiety treatment.
What Is Driving Anxiety?
If you feel a sense of dread whenever you are in the car, you likely have driving anxiety. Driving anxiety is a broad term that can mean different things for different people. Some people may only experience driving anxiety while they are behind the wheel, while others may experience it as a passenger. Of course, it is possible to be anxious as either the driver or the passenger. Perhaps someone only experiences a panic attack while driving on the freeway, while someone else has panic attacks while driving over bridges.
The anxiety someone experiences in a car may be limited to driving, but it could also be related to a variety of other issues. Someone with claustrophobia, or the fear of confined spaces, may feel trapped and anxious inside of a car. Agoraphobia, the fear of places that may make a person feel panicked or trapped, is another possible root cause of driving anxiety. The responsibility of driving may make someone with performance anxiety feel incredibly nervous about the possibility of failing to be an adequate driver.
These fears may seem perfectly reasonable as you drive, but you can move forward by understanding the resulting symptoms and ways to manage this type of anxiety.
Driving Anxiety Symptoms
Driving anxiety symptoms are not any different from typical anxiety symptoms. Driving anxiety symptoms are very similar to typical anxiety symptoms and can include both physical and emotional symptoms. Some signs to watch for while you drive or ride in the car as a passenger include:
- Hyperventilation: If you feel shortness of breath while you are driving, you could be hyperventilating. This common anxiety symptom occurs because a person is taking small, fast sips of air instead of full breaths.
- Dizziness: Hyperventilation can set off many other symptoms because the body is not receiving full breaths. Hyperventilation can be accompanied by a feeling of dizziness.
- Sweating: As you drive, you might feel your palms or entire body become sweaty as you grasp the steering wheel or as you sit in the passenger's seat. Perspiration is often associated with bouts of nervousness and anxiety.
- Heart palpitations: The anxiety you feel in the car can cause your heart to race or even feel like it is going to leap out of your chest. Many people find this symptom of anxiety particularly unnerving, but it is quite common among people who experience anxiety.
- Intense fear: The physical symptoms of driving anxiety typically start because of the intense fear a person feels while in the car. Your mind might be racing with all of the possibilities of what could go wrong, and your body reacts with the fight-or-flight response. But, you can't flee the car when it is moving, and you probably don't always know how to fight those feelings. So, your thoughts continue, and your body exhibits these symptoms of anxiety.
If you have anxiety while driving, experiencing one or more of these symptoms is not unusual. This type of physical and emotional response can be distressing, but recognizing these symptoms as a result of driving anxiety can help you gain control.
What Causes Panic Attacks While Driving?
Maybe you have always had anxiety when it comes to driving, or maybe feeling anxious behind the wheel is a new experience. Panic attacks are a frightening experience, but they do have common causes.
- Bad experiences in the past: The most obvious cause of driving anxiety is having a bad experience related to driving. Maybe you lived through a bad car accident or know a friend or a family member who suffered a bad car crash. Maybe you narrowly missed being in a wreck, or you witnessed the scene of a fatal accident. Any of these experiences can lead to anxiety as either a driver or passenger. An experience like this can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition characterized by repeated thoughts of the experience, anxiety and even nightmares. Although this condition can affect every aspect of your life, it can be difficult to recognize without outside help.
- Stress and anxiety: For some people, stress and anxiety are not limited to the car. You may experience the symptoms of your driving anxiety in other areas of your life as well. This could be due to being overwhelmed and feeling stressed in your personal or professional life. Or, it could be related to an anxiety condition like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). GAD affects 3.1 percent of Americans, a total of 6.8 million adults. GAD is characterized by excessive worry, which often feels uncontrollable, about anything from family and friends to work and money. GAD does not have any single cause, but it can be related to things like genetic factors and life experiences.
- Other phobias: As discussed earlier, fear of driving can be associated with other common phobias like claustrophobia, agoraphobia or performance anxiety. Each of these fears can result in anxiety symptoms and panic attacks. In this case, driving is simply a trigger for a broader fear.
How to Stop Panic Attacks While Driving
Panic attacks are scary experiences that can make you dread driving and even endanger you and your passengers. Here are a few helpful tips to help manage your driving anxiety:
- Plan your route ahead of time: Much of anxiety, related to driving or anything else, is rooted in the unknown. What is going to happen and when? Not knowing the answers to these questions can make you feel like you don't have control. You can alleviate some of these feelings by being as prepared as possible ahead of time. If you are anxious about getting lost, look at your route before you get behind the wheel. Check traffic conditions before you begin to drive. If being stuck in traffic triggers your anxiety, use your GPS to find an alternate route. If you have driving anxiety on the highway, consider taking a route that uses local roads instead. You cannot always predict what other drivers on the road will do, but you can select a route that takes into consideration your anxiety triggers. If you experience car anxiety as a passenger, talk to the people you ride with and ask if you can drive instead.
- Skip the caffeine: A cup of coffee and a morning drive can be the perfect combination for some people, but there can be a link between caffeine and anxiety. If you feel yourself becoming anxious in the car, consider leaving that cup of coffee until later, switching to decaf or taking a break entirely. Caffeine is a known stimulant that can increase the release of stress hormones in your body. If you are feeling anxious about something, caffeine could very well heighten that feeling. If you feel like giving up caffeine altogether is too hard, change the time of your consumption. Leave at least a few hours between a cup of coffee and getting behind the wheel. Alternatively, switch to something with lower caffeine levels, like tea. Even make the break temporary. Try driving for a week without any caffeine and see if you notice any difference in your anxiety levels.
- Manage stress in and outside of the car: Panic while driving may only be related to the time on the road, or it could have links to other parts of your life. Whatever the cause, improved stress management in the driver's seat and everywhere else in your life can be a healthy way to address the problem. Some helpful stress management techniques in the car include breathing exercises and listening to music. Deep breathing can help with some of the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as hyperventilation. Take deep breaths and slowly exhale. You can even count to help focus your mind. If you find racing thoughts are one of your main issues, try putting on calming music or an engaging podcast. Sign along. Learn something new. While you do want to focus on the road, something like music can help take your mind off of the unproductive thoughts contributing to your anxiety. Outside of the car, you can do even more to manage your baseline anxiety levels. Introduce more exercise into your routine. Improve your diet. Changes like this may seem unrelated to your problems behind the wheel, but an overall improvement to your mental health can lead to significant changes in your level of anxiety.
- Consider alternative transportation: Driving is often necessary, but if you have other options, they may be worth exploring. If you live near public transportation, consider riding a bus or train to work instead of driving. If public transportation isn't an option, consider carpooling or trying a ride-share service like Uber or Lyft. This can alleviate any anxiety you feel as a driver. While changing your mode of transportation won't address the anxiety you do feel while driving, it can offer you some immediate relief while you are working on understanding and managing this condition.
Driving Anxiety Treatment
While you can do a lot to manage driving anxiety on your own, reaching out and getting treatment can be a helpful step in overcoming this condition. Seeking treatment can help you identify and better understand the cause of your anxiety. Once you know this information, you and a trained mental health professional can form an individualized, effective treatment plan. You and your therapist can discuss why you want to overcome driving anxiety and the steps you need to take to do so. Here are a few options for driving anxiety treatment:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common type of therapy used to help people address a variety of issues in their lives, including anxiety. CBT focuses on identifying problematic thoughts and behaviors and creating constructive solutions to overcome them. Through this type of therapy, people with driving anxiety can better understand the thought patterns and behaviors that lead to anxiety and panic attacks in the car. From there, your therapist will help you find ways to address those patterns and give you the tools to make positive changes. CBT is considered one of the most effective treatment options for conditions like panic attacks, generalized anxiety, social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias.
- Exposure therapy: Exposure therapy is actually a type of CBT. Exposure therapy is a common treatment for issues such as phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder. This type of therapy exposes people to the things they fear in a safe environment with the goal of having them face and overcome those fears. In exposure therapy, people may experience their fear in-person, in an imagined situation or even through virtual reality. Trained professionals who use this type of therapy will work with each individual to determine the most constructive way to experience exposure. While this may sound frightening, people undergoing exposure therapy are never forced into a situation. Professionals aim to keep people comfortable and in a safe environment while they gradually work to conquer their fears. During exposure therapy, you learn different coping mechanisms to handle your anxiety and its related symptoms.
- Medication: Medical professionals can prescribe a variety of different medications to help manage the symptoms of anxiety. Some of the different classes of anti-anxiety medications include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors and benzodiazepines.
Get Treatment for Your Driving Anxiety at Brookhaven Retreat
Driving anxiety does not have to control your life. You can use the tips we have discussed to help understand and manage your symptoms. If you don't feel like you can do this on your own, it's okay to ask for help. Brookhaven Retreat has an individualized mental health program for women, which uses a variety of program components to create a treatment plan that works best for you. Brookhaven Retreat gives you the insight and tools you need to reach your goals. Reach out to us to learn how we can help you overcome your anxiety and get back to your life.