Dealing with Driving Phobia

One of the common consequences of being in a motor vehicle accident is the development of a Driving / Passenger / Pedestrian Phobia. There may be a fear of driving, of riding in a vehicle as a passenger, or being a pedestrian, or all the above. Driving Phobia is an abnormally high level of anxiety and phobic response to road driving, and it can become a severe psychological condition. This irrational fear is driven by our emotions, which is why will-power, facts and reassurance tend to have little impact. Of course, this doesn’t stop us trying to intellectually ‘understand it’ so we examine the past and try to remember or figure out how the phobia developed in the belief that a rational understanding will reduce its impact, it rarely does. This search for an explanation is quite natural – especially when we don’t know any other way of tackling it.

This fearful response is rarely based on objective facts or reality; which can happen to anyone – it is not a reflection on one’s strength or character, intelligence, will-power, etc. and may develop at any age. While some realize that these fears are irrational, they often find that facing, or even thinking about facing, the feared situation brings on a panic attack or severe anxiety. The fear of driving / passenger / pedestrian following a motor vehicle accident, or the fear of driving / passenger in particular situations such as over bridges or on highways is one of the most common fears. Most sufferers of in-vehicular phobia are surprised to learn that they are far from alone in this surprisingly common, although often unspoken, phobia. These kinds of fears can manifest themselves from mild nervousness to debilitating full blown panic. They are all learned behaviours, and so, all are very treatable.

For someone who is affected by a phobic reaction to driving, one of the biggest horrors is not feeling in control of the ability to control the vehicle, as this will strike terror into the heart. Have you experienced the belief you will involuntarily swerve across the road into the path of other vehicle, perhaps even had a slight urge of wanting to do that, even though your head will be screaming at you to the effect it is highly dangerous. Have you ever felt your body will disobey you? A distorted perspective of responsibility towards fellow road users, or even vehicle passengers, is another common symptom, as the phobic driver may develop an exaggerated fear they will cause a crash that will hurt someone else, and yet may feel they want to do something irrational. It may be extremely difficult to drive at a speed over 80kmph or to move out of lane one. There is often an urge to drive on the hard shoulder and a feeling of intensified panic when driving passed entry and exit slip roads, again with all the other physical symptoms kicking in. The whole thing reaches the height of despair and embarrassment when the terror intensifies to the point of having to pull the car to the hard shoulder and be driven away from the highway by a police patrol.

In-vehicular phobia sometimes is activated in response to circumstances that contain perceived elements of intense danger and where no such level of danger is actually present. As a result of phobia the subject will often experience episodes of extreme anxiety and stress, and therefore exhibit irrational and unpredictable behaviours in response to intrusive thoughts, which have been triggered by that extreme anxiety. The phobic response can arise from situations that unaffected people will happily judge to be insignificant or otherwise trivial in nature. In severe anxiety and phobia cases the condition can be linked to a life changing event or experience, and in severe cases, such an event that can be significant enough to create a condition that may be diagnosed as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD). The situation can sometimes be exaggerated by already present personal emotional difficulties, which again fuel the continuation of a downward spiral of diminishing self–esteem and self–belief. This fuels further anxiety and stress, therefore adding to an already worsening condition, making it impossible to break the cycle. As stressed survivors, post traumatic stress disorder cases need expert handling and that means seeking the help of an experienced psychologist.

Some symptoms of driving phobia include:
  • An absolute feeling of weirdness
  • Severe heart palpitations
  • Feel as if you are going to faint
  • Chest starts paining
  • Sweat excessively and your throat becomes dry
  • Unable to breathe properly and your legs start shaking
  • You can’t even hear or see properly
Your fear of driving / riding in a car can also result in breathlessness, dizziness, nausea, dry mouth, feeling sick, shaking, inability to think clearly, a fear of dying, becoming mad or losing control, a sensation of detachment from reality or a full blown anxiety attack. In car, you may also experience a sense of not being in control of your arms and legs, feeling as though they are turning to jelly, visual distortion, hyperventilating, a sensation that the car is going to tip over, or is actually tipping over, cramps in the stomach, all being brought on through a fear of driving / being a passenger.

Following are some thought patterns of how the fear of driving can manifest itself:
  • These days I am generally very nervous about driving/being a passenger/being a pedestrian.
  • I simply fear being in a car, whether driving myself or being driven by others.
  • I once had a panic or anxiety attack while driving, and constantly fear that it will happen again
  • I do not have a fear of driving on roads that are familiar, but I fear that I may lose control on unfamiliar roads.
  • I can drive and feel fine, but only within a certain distance from where I live.
  • I am afraid of driving on highways/freeways.
  • I am afraid of driving in heavy traffic or being stuck in traffic jams.
  • I am afraid of driving at night.
  • I am very worried about driving in difficult weather (rain, snow, fog etc).
  • I have a fear of driving over bridges.
  • I worry about driving down narrow lanes.
  • I always fear that other drivers are going to lose control.
  • I am afraid of being a pedestrian.
  • I am terrified to cross a busy intersection.
  • Even walking through a sidewalk makes me feel uncomfortable, as I think that an accident can happen to me anytime.
  • Due to fearing an accident, I don’t dare to ride my bike anymore.
In fact, modern day driving can be stressful. There are the hidden stresses that build gradually each time we drive and more obvious stresses that result from involvement in an accident or road-rage incident, or simply from getting lost or having a bad day at the wheel. The cumulative effect of this driver stress and fear of driving can cause all sorts of discomfort in our lives. Somehow most people tend to think that we should be immune to all that surrounds us on the road; that we should not let ‘road stress’ creep into our lives. People who can’t sleep, have recurrent ‘nightmares’ with accident themes or who have ‘flashbacks’ reliving traumatic incidents might feel that they should ‘pull themselves together’. Often people who suffer discomfort or delayed trauma after a road accident feel alone. “I must be silly letting it affect me this way”. Feeling embarrassed and foolish they will almost certainly try to keep their concerns to themselves, not even admitting to the phobia to family or close friends, through the worry of being ridiculed. The inability to cope creates even more stress, which then perpetuates the further deterioration in the ability to cope. But you can gain some comfort in the knowledge that there are thousands of people who have problems that arose as a result of, or that were compounded by, an incident on the road - a crash, a near miss, a child running out, a road rage. If you are one of these people, you are not alone.

Self-help Tips: You might have already tried to change, you might have had treatment or training that has not worked or only been partially successful; you might be coping be taken medications to manage anxiety. Whatever your current position, its time to move forward. To gently let go of old, self limiting thoughts, beliefs and behaviours. Or perhaps all you need is a renewed belief in your ability behind the wheel. Whatever problems you have had behind the wheel, you can move forward again. Whether you need to recover from a past trauma, uncover the underlying confidence that is present in other areas of your life and apply it to driving, or discover a confidence that was never ‘taught’ when you first learnt to drive. The starting point is understanding where you are now.
  • The beginning for change is to shift your perspective by becoming aware of the things that you can do successfully in the car. This might be simply sitting in the driving seat and starting the engine. If you can drive (i.e., if you have valid driving license) you can do some things successfully in order to start recognizing your successes, take a trip in the car for no other reason than to drive.
  • After each drive write down five things that felt good and two things that didn’t.
  • Figure out solutions for the two things that didn’t feel good.
  • If you are starting to gain confidence (no matter how much or how little) from this, repeat it three times and then raise the challenge slightly by increasing the time by five minutes or by driving in a different location (you know where it is safe for you).
  • The key is taking small, easy steps. Only stretch yourself a little bit each time you go out.
  • The above method might not successfully work with everybody. If not, always seek professional help as early as possible.
Treatment Considerations: Unlike other phobias, the fear of driving treatment must be approached differently due to the nature of the activity. While driving, there is a limitation to how relaxed an individual should or can be, while still maintaining safety and control of the vehicle. The types of progressive muscle relaxation techniques typically advised by various programs or resources on anxiety are impractical, if not impossible while driving.

Using modern psychological methods combined with in car re-training focused at response prevention can help you to get back on the road and get on with your life. It is also important to work on eliminating any avoidance patterns that are maintaining the phobia. This involves repeated driving / being a passenger, particularly in situations that are presently avoiding. Seeking help from one of our “Registered Clinical Psychologists” can help you to gain confidence and a new belief that although the past is fixed in place now, your future is waiting for change.

The most recognized method to get over a phobia is to expose yourself (in a graded manner) to the feared object or situation and to tolerate the anxiety until it starts to decrease. Some people find that they can do this on their own, perhaps with the help of self-help books, support groups and friends and family. Others may need professional help from a combined team of psychologist and a specialized driving instructor. For many people, the best treatment for phobias is behavioral therapy involving exposure with response prevention. Behavioral therapy involves a one-to-one session with a Psychologist trained in treating phobias, followed by training in-vivo strategies with a specialized driving instructor. During the sessions, you learn to tolerate the anxiety triggered by exposure with the help of specialized relaxation techniques. It also involves techniques to alter the inappropriate patterns of thinking you have developed and the behavior that stems from them.

This is a Compiled Article


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

When my wife drives (she is a very good driver..The radio is on, she is singing, talking, all is cool.

When I take over, I connstantly hear Watch it..Look Out..Don't change the radio station or touch anyting as I may take my eyes off the road,,I have driven over a million miles without incident..I take naps when she drives..When she takes over, she will NEVER take a nap....I Love her, Except when when we get into the car together....By the way..This begins as soon as I pull out of the driveway. Someone, please help us. Gil

Unknown said...

Hi, I'm 24 year old woman that has never been in any traumatic car accident. I have a very strong fear of getting into an accident. My panic attacks are absolutely inevitable and affect me EVERY TIME I have someone else in the car with me. When someone gets in the car with me, as soon as I start driving down the road - I can just feel the passenger staring at the long road ahead. They'll glance at me, how I'm driving, all of my controls and then back at the road ahead. I can't stand it because I know the entire time it is silent judgement of any and/or every mistake I make while being the operator of the vehicle. I think this is somewhat of a social phobia because I do not get this when I drive alone (unless I feel that a fellow next-lane-over vehicle is watching my driving). I've had this since I was 19 years old and I cannot live my life like this. I can't avoid driving a vehicle with passengers forever. I am so scared of how my loved ones will look at me once I reveal this embarrassing secret. Someone PLEASE help, any advice would be appreciated!

Anonymous said...

I am 32 and over the past 4 years i have gotten this immense fear of being in the car with someone else. I have other fears but this is the most debilitating. My fear is that I will get somewhere with someone and have a panic attack and not be able to leave. I know exactly when it started and i hate that i have let it go on for some long. My other fear is being too far away from home. I have heard this is a fear for many people. I lived about 700 miles away from my family but just recently moved back closer to them. I was usually able to visit them once a year when i lived away and i was always highly medicated. I called them zombie visits. The fear wasn't being away it was getting back. that is always my fear. Going away but not being able to get back. I want to go see my friends that i left 3 months ago but i am too anxious. there are 12 hours away and I cant even go 12 minutes.

Unknown said...

HI my name is Nancy a year and a half ago I was in a car accident with my sister I was a passenger in her car ever since that day I am afraid to be in a car or walking across the street where there is a lot of traffic it's worse when my daughter drive on the highway where there is a lot of trucks sometimes it happens on the bus should I talk to my doctor about this any help would be appreciated. ...:thank you

Unknown said...

HI my name is Nancy am 55 I got in a car accident with my sister a year and half ago ever since that I get scared when driving with anyone mostly on highways or where there is a lot of traffic it's worse when am with my daughter when she drives on the highway or when crossing the street should I talk to myou doctor about this ....any advice would help ....thank you

Arif said...

I am having similar panicked emotions/feelings of passengers Judging me while driving.. I start getting panic attack and extreme anxiety while driving. My mouth gets extremely dry with choking feeling that increases with fear of people knowingredients it and how embarrassing it would be for me. Please help if you have found out the treatment. Thanks

Paula Grady said...

About ten years ago, I developed a fear of being
a passenger in a car on the highway or interstate,
especially when accelerating onto the interstate.
This has, for the most part, diminished during
the past couple of years.

However, I am wondering if it's an irrational
phobia when the driver I'm riding with starts
to veer toward the shoulder on the interstate,
or if he's looking off out his side window
instead of ahead on the road.