Anxious Driver? 5 Tips to Help You Overcome Driving Anxiety Once and For All
I never liked driving. I never liked the idea of sitting behind the wheel for painfully long periods of time. I hate looking for parking, and I hate idling my hours away in traffic. During my younger years, I lived in the suburbs with my parents, and when they eventually allowed me to drive, I realized that the novelty wore thin after awhile.
I enjoyed the freedom, of course (as any teenager), but I also abhorred the responsibility that came with it.
I hated having to pay for gas, the need to maintain and tune up your car. And since my ride was nowhere near “current”, I found myself burning through my allowance faster than I could save it.
However, when I grew older, went to college and got my first job; driving became a necessary evil in my life. I didn’t loathe it as much as I first did, much like how you come to live with the small annoyances in your life. It’s not like driving was going to be the death of me or anything.
But when I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder, I realized that it could as well be.
The Dangers of Driving Anxiety
Looking back at the years before being diagnosed with my condition, I realized that my driving could have easily been a hint for what was slowly invading my life. Anxiety was something of a way of describing my life, but no way did I ever think it would become an actual condition.
I remember feeling anxious every time I took the wheel. I would feel my heart begin to palpitate, though slightly at first, as soon as I heard my seatbelt lock into place. And as soon as the engine revved and the tires hit the pavement, I found myself focused on nothing else but getting to where I needed to be. Read More
My doctors would eventually tell me that there’s no way to know if that was simply an undiagnosed form of anxiety disorder. They claimed that there were a number of possible reasons to feel anxious while driving: stress, tension and other concerns well outside of the act of driving. But I felt differently. Sure these things play a role in making you an anxious driver, but I felt that it was my condition taking the wheel, and not me.
My formal diagnosis made my driving anxiety worse. Suddenly, I had a scapegoat for my unwillingness to drive. I felt it steering me through the road, and at any minute, could send me into the deep end of a tragic car accident.
The biggest fear of anyone driving with anxiety is the thought of having a panic attack while driving. The idea of losing control of yourself and your mind while behind the wheel is a truly terrifying thought. Not only are you a danger to yourself and your car, but also to other pedestrians and drivers.
During my years trying to recover from anxiety disorder, I met a certain man named Matthew. He too was a sufferer of a particular anxiety disorder known as claustrophobia. It is more popularly known as a fear of small, tight spaces. And it made his ability to drive near close to impossible. He trained himself to avoid it altogether, especially after an incident just a few months after his diagnosis.
Matthew was moving apartments. It was a consequence of his newly diagnosed condition. His new place was a good drive away from the city, and the open space outside his residential building was a good change from his downtown abode. He had enlisted the help of a friend to help him move his things with his friend’s pick up truck, but unfortunately, an emergency had come up at work and Matthew was left on his own. Matthew thought of waiting for his friend next weekend, but having promised his landlord to be out by the end of that week put him in a pickle. Before he knew it, Matthew was loading the last of his things into his car and driving off to his new apartment.
It didn’t help his situation that Matthew’s car was small to begin with. And immediately, he thought it a bad idea. He felt the pores of his skin open up, and his breath broke into an erratic staccato. Not five blocks away from his apartment, Matthew was so focused on fighting his anxiety that he hadn’t noticed the traffic light switch from green to red. The side of his acar was smashed in by an incoming minivan.
No one was hurt from the incident, but Matthew wouldn’t take the wheel until another eight years.
For people like Matthew, driving is near close to impossible because of their condition. However, some cases of anxiety disorder allow driving anxiety to be curbed by the right practices and mindset. Having a panic attack while driving is indeed a very serious threat to your safety and the safety of others, but the sheer anticipation of it can prove to be both debilitating and paralyzing.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what causes panic attacks while driving. There are an infinite number of possible triggers both inside and outside the vehicle, but there are ways to curb driving anxiety, especially if your anxiety disorder isn’t too serious.
Remember, driving with anxiety is only dangerous if you let the anxiety do the driving. Here is a list of tips to help you prevent or outright stop panic attacks while driving.
Tip #1: The Trick is to Keep Breathing
For anyone who has read any of my previous blog entries, you wouldn’t be mistaken to point out that I am a big advocate of breathing techniques. After going through a literal gauntlet of treatments from medication to all-natural remedies, I’ve come to realize that breathing is critical to curbing the effects of driving anxiety, and any type of anxiety disorder.
Breathing is something we do naturally. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we do it properly. Breathing is something innate in us. We aren’t conscious of it, and because of that there are a lot of bad habits we pick up when we leave our breathing unchecked.
However, breathing techniques can be reliable stress relievers before and while driving. During the onset of anxiety (or the moments leading up to a panic attack) you can immediately feel your breath shorten. Your breathing comes in shallow bursts and suddenly your body is gasping for air.
When anxiety reaches its peak, this is when you need oxygen the most; but unfortunately, your shallow breathing isn’t delivering the right amount of air into your blood. Before your anxiety gets out of hand, take control of your breathing. Be conscious of it and take deep, satisfying breaths.
People new to breathing techniques believe that the more breathes you take the better off you are. This results in reverting back to fast, staccato breathing. Instead, you should be aiming for quality not quantity.
Don’t be afraid to crack open a window to let some air in and give you some space. Tune in to a radio station with some nice light music to help you with your breathing.
Take time with your breaths; both while inhaling and exhaling. It’s normal to slow down your driving while you do this so make sure to stay in the slow lane as you pick up your breathing.
Tip #2: Do Not Medicate Yourself
Most people who suffer from anxiety disorders rely on medication to keep calm. I was no exception to this rule. Unfortunately, most anti-anxiety drugs like antidepressants come with a whole slew of side effects that are often not recommended to be taken while driving.
A lot of these side effects include drowsiness, weariness and sleepiness. Loss of focus and impaired vision may also accompany the ingestion of anti-anxiety drugs and can kick in as soon as thirty minutes after taking them.
Although these drugs can easily soothe the onset of driving panic attacks, they may also possibly result in catastrophic car accidents if left unchecked. They can easily be a greater cause of harm than help.
If you do decide to take medication, make sure you’re not sedated when you drive. Some doctors prescribe their patients to take regular doses of medication while treating anxiety disorder so sometimes it cannot be helped to be medicated. But the effects of anti-anxiety drugs do have peaks and troughs, so make sure you time your driving duties accordingly.
Tip #3: Take Driving Breaks to Calm Down
When driving under anxiety, it’s always good to take breaks every so often. For those of you who are just getting back behind the wheel after years of staying off it, it’s suggested to take a five minute break for every ten minutes on the road, most especially if you’ve a history of anxiety triggering rather quickly.
Once you’re comfortable with that, you can increase your breaks to five minutes every twenty minutes of driving, to five minutes every thirty minutes of driving, to five minutes every forty five minutes of driving… and so on. Like a child learning how to walk, it’s best that you start things off slowly.
Try staying off roads where it isn’t possible to stop at any time. This is usually busy streets where roads can easily clog up. Take routes where you can easily stop at the shoulder and step out of the car without any trouble. Using these breaks in conjunction with the previously outlined breathing techniques can set you back on track in no time.
Do not drive if you’re in a rush, especially if you’re not confident in your driving abilities under the strain of anxiety. Driving anxiety can easily overtake you if you’re not careful, so it’s best that you allow the time to pace long stretches of driving by taking a breather once in awhile.
Tip #4: Drive Well and Drive Safe
Fear is a major factor of driving anxiety. The anticipation of a car crash is just as lethal as the crash itself. It can be the fundamental trigger to send you careening onto the wrong side of the road.
On top of the previously listed techniques in curbing driving anxiety; you can also take a more practical approach to making sure your driving is as safe as possible.
Spend the time to have your car checked at an auto service center. Make sure your brakes are in order and that your wheels are aligned. Make sure that your engine is tuned up and that your seatbelts, airbags and other safety precautions are up to industry standard.
Breathing techniques and driving breaks can only take you so far when it comes to putting your mind at ease about safety. However, seeing for yourself that your car is in good working condition should go a long way in easing you into the driver’s seat. You won’t have to worry about your seatbelt snapping or the airbags not going off. You don’t have to worry about the brakes not stopping on time or your engine doing a number on you.
Because of that, you need to be able to service your car in a reliable auto service center. Don’t sell yourself short by having it checked up by your car enthusiast neighbor from across the street. Have professionals do it so you can take to the streets in confidence.
Tip #5: Keep Good Company
When starting out behind the wheel with driving anxiety, it’s recommended that you take someone who can keep you company. However, don’t take just anyone. Take someone you can trust, and who understands your condition. They should be a source of calm and relief, not a source of stress and aggravation.
They should watch you for symptoms of anxiety, and advise you on what to do about it. Because of that, you should also have someone beside you whom you can trust. If your passenger panics while you’re at the wheel, that can easily trigger a panic attack while driving and have both of you in the hospital in no time.
Treating anxiety disorder is all about finding the support you need, and driving anxiety is no different.