It’s not uncommon to feel a creeping anxiety while driving a car. It could be because you’re learning to drive for the first time and you’re not sure of yourself. It could be because you were once involved in a car accident, and experienced trauma that now makes every car ride difficult.
In any case, this anxiety can make your life more complicated, preventing you from driving when and where you feel, or causing distress whenever you’re in the car. Fortunately, there are some strategies that can help you manage that anxiety.
Accept Your Anxiety
Anxiety tends to come with a self-contained feedback loop; you know you have a tendency to have anxiety, so you feel anxious before you even get in a car, wondering whether you’ll have a panic attack mid-trip. This cycle can be tough to break, but one of the most important steps is to come to terms with your own anxiety.
Understand that anxiety is a normal human response to stressful situations. In some cases, anxiety may arise with greater severity than is warranted, but that doesn’t mean it’s something to be feared or hated. Also, try to acknowledge the root causes of your anxiety. Were you involved in a traumatic car accident at some point? Are you nervous while traveling at high speeds? What is it, specifically, that triggers your anxiety? Your awareness and acknowledgment can make you more comfortable, which can keep your anxiety from spiraling out of control.
Practice Exposure Therapy
One of the best treatment methods for phobias, panic disorders, and anxiety is exposure therapy. While typically exercised by a licensed practitioner, it can be used by ordinary people hoping to make a positive change in their lives. The basic idea is to gradually expose yourself to the condition or situation that makes you feel anxiety, teaching you that there isn’t anything to fear.
For example, if you feel severe anxiety while driving, consider getting behind the wheel of a parked car, turned off, and try to calm your nerves. Do this frequently until you feel in control. When ready, move onto sitting behind the wheel of a parked car that’s idling. When you’re comfortable with this, consider taking the car to a big, empty lot and driving short distances in a straight line. With enough time, effort, and patience, you can eventually work your way up to driving on streets and highways.
Practice Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is a cognitive and emotional tool you can use to get more control over your emotions, and filter out some of the creeping feelings of anxiety or dread that come with driving a car. The idea is simple; you’ll pay attention to something consistent, like the rhythm of your breath, and allow yourself to be enveloped fully in the present moment. Whenever you notice your thoughts deviating from the present, gently bring yourself back and notice the drifting thought as if you’re a separate observer.
This takes a lot of consistent practice, but when you’re experienced, you’ll be able to call up this state of attention in almost any situation. Calling upon it when you feel a sense of anxiety while driving can almost instantly relieve the pressure, at least partially, and help you feel more in control.
Drive With Someone You Know and Trust
As you become more comfortable with driving and test the limits of your own anxiety, consider traveling with someone you know and trust. If desired, start with them driving and you in the passenger seat. When ready, drive with them riding shotgun. The presence of another person you inherently trust can make the entire situation seem less anxiety-inducing. You can also incorporate this strategy into your plans for exposure therapy.
Consider Getting Professional Help
If these strategies aren’t helping you, or if you’re dealing with anxiety for deep, complicated reasons, you may need to seek the help of a professional therapist. For example, if you’re suffering from multiple PTSD symptoms and anxiety is just a small part of what you’re going through, it will be hard to get over those symptoms on your own. A therapist will help you understand what you’re thinking and feeling, and put it in a context that’s easy to understand. They may also be able to recommend a medication or alternative strategies you can use to improve yourself.
Everyone experiences at least some anxiety when driving, even if it’s exclusively in response to unexpected events (like a car swerving in front of you). But when it becomes so severe it interferes with your ability to drive safely and consistently, it’s time to take action. Learning to manage your anxiety is challenging, but entirely possible with the right mindset and adequate support.