How To Deal With Driving Anxiety

By Anni


As I was driving to Costco this morning for my weekly grocery stock-up, with my beloved Latin music blasting from the stereo and the twins telling poop jokes in the back seat, I was thinking about how less than six months ago the mere prospect of getting on the highway for the 20-minute drive would have put my body in fight or flight and made me cry.

I was thinking about how much mental and physical effort it took to get myself to this point. To the point where I’m able to drive a car to the grocery store and school and dance class and doctor’s appointments.

You know, normal stuff.  A mom driving her kids to places.  Without totally freaking out.

And then I started wondering if I’m alone with this.

How common is driving anxiety?

How many other people are scared of driving?

Am I the only weirdo?

Now here’s a secret blogger perk: bloggers know how to figure out what people google and how often.  So when I got home, I looked up how many people google fear of driving, fully expecting it to be, like, 10 people + yours truly.  But surprisingly, I found out that thousands of nervous drivers google this topic every month.

I don’t usually advertise my driving anxiety, but now that I know that I’m definitely not alone, I felt encouraged to bring it up. 🙂  Although I will always be somewhat of a nervous driver, I have learned how to deal with driving anxiety so that it’s not holding me back or negatively impacting my life anymore.

Below are the steps I have taken to get me from meltdown central to master of my minivan. 😀

Got driving anxiety? Me too! Here's how to deal with driving anxiety from someone who has been there.

How To Deal With Driving Anxiety: 7 Steps To Overcome Fear Of Driving

1. Know That You Are Not Alone

There have been times when I have literally felt so alone and like the ONLY person in the world with this problem.  But I think we just established that that feeling is based on an inaccurate assumption.

So if you ever feel like the only weirdo who’s afraid of driving, you now know that there is me + thousands of others.  So you are most definitely not alone.

2. Know That This Is Purely A Logistical Issue And It’s Not Going To Make Or Break Your Life

Driving anxiety is the kind of thing that can morph into a roaring lion when it’s really just a grouchy house cat.  Not being able to drive may feel like the end of the world, but let’s put this beast into perspective.

You can lead a perfectly happy and satisfying life without ever driving a mile.  (Unless your life-long dream is to be race car driver and I’m just going to go out on a limb here and assume that’s not your life-long dream.)  Not being able to drive is a logistical issue that you can get around by living in a metropolitan area with access to public transportation or by taking uber or by relying on family and friends or a combination of all three.  If you really don’t want to deal with driving, you don’t have to.

Driving anxiety is not like social anxiety or generalized anxiety or panic attacks which can truly keep you from living a meaningful life.

I’ve managed to go through long periods of time without driving or only driving minimally and I can tell you I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything.  🙂

I was actually enjoying one of these non-driving phases of life until relatively recently, but then roughly six months ago, my husband got a new, more challenging job and I found myself having to take over the soccer dad duties.  Yes, I could have just kept my kids at home and gotten my groceries delivered and used uber for doctor’s appointments, but I had gotten my driving anxiety under control before, so I knew I could do it again.  And that’s what the rest of this post is about.

3. Get To The Root Of Your Driving Anxiety

While some people like to frame fear of driving as an irrational phobia, I have found it more helpful to examine the reasons behind my fear and address them.  Because I actually feel like I have some legit reasons for being more uncomfortable with driving than the average person:

  • I have super slow reaction time. I just don’t act quickly.  Ever.  And if someone tries to make me, I just freeze. So making split-second decisions, as is sometimes necessary in fast-moving traffic, is really challenging for me.
  • I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP).  Highly sensitive people have sensory processing sensitivity, meaning they have a higher than average level of sensitivity to external stimuli.  All the lights + fast movement = overwhelmed brain.
  • I’m an intuitive introvert.  These are personality traits that make me a “head in the clouds” type of person.  I spend lots of time deep in thought (quite happily I might add), which means that I don’t spend lots of time paying attention to concrete details in my environment, such as where places are located in relation to each other.  So left to my own devices, I get lost. A lot. As in I have actually gotten lost on the way to the grocery store, and called my husband in a panic, because I had no clue how to get back home or back on the road to the grocery store.  This was before GPS, and no, I’m not making this stuff up. 🙂
  • There are a lot of people out there on the roads who are NOT scared of driving.  They are not scared to the point that they will treat a 4,000 pound machine like it’s a toy, make it a rule to add 15 to the number in the speed limit sign, and interpret “LANE ENDS” as “HAUL ASS”.
  • And to top it all off, two relatives of mine have died in traffic accidents.

So given all of the above, overcoming driving anxiety has been more about “what concrete actions can I take to feel safer about driving” than it has been about “how can I convince myself to not be scared of driving”.

The reasons behind your driving anxiety may be completely or partially different from mine, but I wanted to list mine to get your wheels turning about what might be going on for you.

4. Remember That This Is Not An Either-Or Situation

One thing that makes me feel safer about driving is knowing that I can control the circumstances in which I’m willing to drive.

Driving is not an either-or proposition.  You don’t have to be either someone who is comfortable with every possible driving situation or someone who never ever gets behind the wheel no matter what.  There are in-betweens here.

I drive my kids to school and hobbies.  I drive to the grocery store.  I take myself and my kids to doctor’s appointments.

But there are some kinds of driving that are just not worth the effort for me:

  • Driving when someone else is available to drive. This is why I almost never drive on weekends. 🙂
  • Driving into the city.  I park at a metro station in the outskirts.
  • Driving to new places without extensive preparation.
  • Driving if I’m already super anxious about other stuff that is going on.
  • Parallel parking and backing into a parking spot.

It’s also ok to:

  • Take the route you are most comfortable with even if it’s longer (and even if it’s MUCH longer).
  • Avoid certain locations during busy times.
  • Stay on the slow lane and not pass other cars.
  • Park further away to avoid bumping into other cars.
  • Start with “easier” driving and expand your driving repertoire as you get more comfortable.
  • Have a back-up plan to pull over and call for help if needed.

5. Recognize That There Are Three Components To Driving And Address Each Separately

Another thing that makes me feel safer about driving is approaching it not as ONE BIG SCARY THING but in smaller pieces.

There are three parts to driving:

  • operating the vehicle
  • navigating
  • responding to changing traffic situations

Now when I think about all of this happening at once, my brain literally wants to explode from overwhelm.

But here’s my #1 secret to beating driving anxiety: if I make operating the vehicle and navigating virtually automatic, then I can handle responding to changing traffic situations A LOT better.

6. Get Comfortable Operating The Vehicle BEFORE You Get In Traffic

Whenever I get back to driving after a break or whenever we get a new car, here’s what I do.  My husband drives us to a school parking lot on a weekend and I drive around the parking lot to get comfortable with operating the vehicle.

And when I say comfortable, I mean so comfortable that I don’t have to think about what I’m doing.

This can take quite a while, so you need to be with someone patient and understanding.  This is not a five-minute thing!  😉  Sometimes I need to go back multiple times before it feels second nature to me.

I have also found that it takes regular driving to maintain this comfort level.  Probably not every day, but several times a week.

If you have never learned to operate a car and it seems like an impossible hurdle, let me tell you that it feels super weird and scary at first, but you do get used to the feeling, and as long as you take it slow in a safe environment, you can learn it to the point that it feels automatic.

I’m not savvy with any kind of technology or machinery.  I can barely operate a toaster, I have injured myself with an electric can opener, but I have learned to operate a car and operate it well.  And if I can learn, you can too.

7. Prepare For Driving To New Places

In addition to being comfortable with operating the vehicle, I want to be 100 percent certain I know where I’m going.  And since I basically need a map to find the bathroom in my own house, “knowing where I’m going” takes extensive preparation.

Whenever I want to add a new destination to my regular driving repertoire, here’s the process I go through:

  • Practice as a passenger.  My husband drives and reminds me every two seconds to keep paying attention.  I take notes on landmarks and which lane I’m supposed to be in when.  Last-minute lane changes are one of the things that really freak me out, so I always want to know where I’m supposed to be way in advance.
  • Practice as a driver with a trusted passenger.  I drive the route with my husband as the passenger, so he can remind me where I’m supposed to go in case I forget.
  • Before I attempt the route on my own, I review MapQuest directions and/or look at pictures on Google Earth.
  • I also use GPS sometimes, but I have seen it fail enough times that I feel more comfortable just memorizing the route myself.

Even with all this preparation, I’m still nervous when I go out on my own the first few times, but the more I repeat, the more comfortable I get.  If I don’t repeat the route fairly regularly, I forget it and have to start all over again, which is why I’m pretty lazy about driving unless it’s a place I need to go to regularly.

Like Costco.  The reason I no longer freak out about driving to Costco is because I got really comfortable with the car I drive and I got really comfortable with the route I take.  And therefore, I can give all my attention to protecting myself from the buttholes that give me road rage. 🙂

What about you?  Do you think you’ll try some of my tips?  If you are a nervous driver, please (PLEASE!) let me know in the comments below, so we can all feel less alone. 😀

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About the author 

Anni

Hi! I'm a life coach, a Certified MBTI® Practitioner, and a mentor for stressed out introverts and highly sensitive people. I used to be one myself! My mission is to help you discover your true self and create a life you ACTUALLY like.

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    1. As to phobias, I’ve had my own, acrophobia, scared poopless of heights. How did I deal with that? I enlisted in the U.S. Navy and I was asked what branch, sea duty, land? “No” I said, I want Naval Air, On my first day as Airman Recruit I was taken up in an SNB air plane with a CPO, and he asked me if I’m nervous, and I replied, “Oh no, I’m all right”, the Chief said, “Then why your knuckle all white as you grip the arm rest?”. I laughed and said, “touche, Chief, I’m scared as hell”. As time went on and I was an Apprentice Airman, the fear began to diminish and in another two years I was an Airman and Flight Captain, and began to doze off at the drone of the and flew hundreds of hours , eight years in the cockpit, and since then I have learned to overcome fears by openly fight them. I think you are doing fine with a method that helps you, Anni. Happy driving. Ciao, Bob,

  1. Wow, I had to read this out aloud to my husband as this is EXACTLY how I feel and he had a chuckle! I’m an HSP and an INFJ, and this really resonates with me. I also get really anxious if others ask me for a lift somewhere or a ride home if it’s on my way, I feel so much more “pressure” even if it’s a route I’m comfortable with. Your tips are spot on!

    1. Thank you for commenting and making me feel less alone, Sian! 🙂 I totally feel the added pressure too if I’m driving others somewhere. Plus, even if it’s an otherwise familiar route, there’s the potential of a weird parking situation popping up. 😉

  2. I’m the same way. My family doesnt understand because they think I’m a drama queen when it comes to driving. They don’t understand that my hatred for traffic is not just being inconvenienced, it’s the ANXIETY that goes with it. For me it’s being trapped in my car with no way out. I fear that if I get stuck I’ll have to pee and not be able to go (has happened too many times) and in heavy traffic your risk of an accident goes up, or seems to go up anyway. I absolutely refuse to drive to San Francisco and that has resulted in many missed opportunities. I will neither drive or be a passenger because of my traffic phobias. You wouldnt believe my anxiety driving in Los Angeles this summer. I got to the point where I simply couldn’t do it anymore and told my husband to take the kids into the city without me on our last day. I am truly OK when it comes to familiar small town driving but the minute you make me go to a big city where I have to make split second decisions I get very anxious. I consider myself to be a very intelligent person and this makes me feel dumb sometimes. I wish I wasn’t so phobic about traffic, I could definitely go more places and do more things!

    1. Hi Ingrid, thanks for commenting. It’s definitely something many people don’t understand. I have passenger anxiety too if it’s anyone other than my husband driving.

  3. This article was amazing. I can relate so much that parts of it made me laugh pretty hard! Not too many bloggers can make me feel a connection to them; you are super talented sis, thank you so much for writing this post!

  4. All this is so true. When I moved to the U.S. I was terrified of driving, cause I’d never been on a highway or had to deal with multiple lanes (I grew up in a tiny, tiny place and never drove in Europe). Practice makes perfect of course and now I’m cool with it (for the most part 😉 ), but parking still makes me so anxious!! The whole not knowing where I’ll park or what kind of parking there will be just creates knots in my stomach. These are some good tips though! I found your blog just yesterday and I gotta say your writing is so good! The articles I’ve read so far are really fantastic. 🙂

      1. Hi Erika, thank you so much for reading and commenting and for the kind words! Too bad being able to ride a bicycle on black ice doesn’t really cut it in the U.S. 😉

  5. Yes you are not alone! I didn’t get my license until I was 24 and am now coming to 28 here in a couple months and still I hate being behind the wheel and cannot stand driving on the freeway. I have been in several car accidents as a child that were not my fault and also one that was my fault when I was pregnant. Everybody was fine and my baby is now 1 and half. But it is still very traumatizing. Working on my years of driving anxiety. Thank you for your article and helpful tips.

  6. Reading this article was amazing. I have a severe anxiety disorder & ptsd that stems from cars. When I was a teen I was hit by a car while crossing the street. I have never even driven a car before. After the accident, I had high anxiety even being in or around cars. I’ve overcome a lot to be a passenger in a moving vehicle & walking in crosswalks. But now I’m faced to get a license. I’ve recently moved from Hawaii to the mainland with my family. Back home, my work, grocery shopping, & even the doctors office were easy to get to or transportation was near. But now, bc of where I live (kind of faux country/suburban) it’s impossible to get any where without driving. For the most part, I rely on my husband to take our daughter and myself places or occasional uber (but that can get so expensive/not always reliable). And I’m at a point where I need to try to push myself, not only for myself but for my family. I’m beyond terrified. Just thinking about driving, I have panic attacks, even as I’m writing this, I’m coming down from one. But I’m so glad I’m not alone. Thank you for giving me hope.

    1. Hi Paige, thank you for sharing your story. You have been through a lot! You may have already thought of this, but in your situation, it might make sense to break it down into even smaller baby steps than described in this article: step 1: practice visualizing driving until you can do it calmly, step 2: practice sitting in the driver’s seat, step 3: practice putting the key in the ignition, etc.

  7. Driving during winter! Im highly sensitive head in the clouds girl and have wrecked twice and refuse to drive. I managed to drive once last winter with snow and ice on the road and was a bawling mess the way there and back. Thank you for this im glad to know im not alone.

  8. Hi – thank you so much for this article. All of the reasons you gave for your driving anxiety are the ones I experience (although my bad associations with driving were not from car accidents, but rather my father “teaching” me how to drive by screaming in my ear and belittling me). I now live in Johannesburg, South Africa and I have to say – driving at home now (South Carolina, US) is actually pleasant because of my experiences driving in other countries. Here in SA the road conditions are shocking (though the highways are all right), pedestrians are constantly crossing traffic, traffic lights/robots are continually out, traffic laws are seen as an option rather than the law, and they are never enforced. I could go on and on, but I think I made my point. Anyway, I do drive some here – I have about a 15-20 mile radius and then I haven’t made it past that. It truly is terrifying for me to drive here, particularly because I have SEVERE sensory processing issues (as you say, there is a LOT of different things going on around you when you’re driving). I’m not sure how to get past it , but as you say, it’s a logistics problem and I try to get around it as best as I can (I also don’t drive on the weekends, or after 5 pm, or I take an Uber). I have some critics out there that think I’m just being a diva. I have posted this article on Facebook and told them that they should read it before they judge me again. Thank you for putting my feelings into words!

    1. Hi Daphne, thank you for sharing your story! I can only imagine how challenging it would be to drive under those conditions. It makes me tense just thinking about it. As for the critics… Some people have a hard time seeing how other people might have different experiences from their own. One of the reasons I wrote this article was so that we could all feel less alone in the face of such criticism. It has definitely done that for me with you and others commenting and sharing your experiences. 🙂

  9. Hi Anni! I have fear of driving and I am trying to get the license after 3 failed tests. I will have my 4th try this week. I am a highly sensitive person and, like you said, I find it overwhelming to drive with so many signals, lights, cars and decisions to make in such a sort time frame. I don’t understand how people can drive so happily without even thinking about how dangerous it can get to be. I am trying to rationalize my fear and I was searching information about HSP and fear of driving when I found you post. Here in Spain we don’t know much about HSP and there is not much written about it. It is nice to feel understood so thank you for sharing it.
    Regards from Spain!

    1. Hi Maria, thank you so much for sharing your story! My hope is that info about sensitivity will keep spreading. Once you understand what’s going on with you and the people around you understand, it makes it a lot easier to deal with.

      1. I’m terrified of driving alone. I don’t drive anymore due to this horrible fear. I really need to start driving alone but fear prevents me from doing so…I hate not having the freedom of leaving the house because I can’t drive due to extreme anxiety.

  10. Oh wow, I’ve just stumbled across this and it’s so similar to me! I’m in the UK and hate driving places I don’t know, I can’t do it unless I google map it and get my partner to drive there first. It’s weird because I’ve been driving 9 years, never had a crash or a prang but I feel like I’m not confident In my driving skills. I should be as my driving is fine, but I lack confidence in other areas and I think it’s spills over into my driving. I drive around town all the time and familiar routes I’m fine with (which are more dangerous and more complicated than a motorway) so is definitely an internal confidence issue. I sometimes feel that there’s to much info to take in and I think my reactions are slower than I’d like, so it was enlightening when you mentioned the processing thing, I took am a very sensitive person. Thank you so much, it’s nice to know I’m not alone, or weird!

  11. I have been trying to figure out why I’m scared to drive to new places for a long time now. I’ve considered perhaps its the fear of getting lost, but that doesn’t make sense since I have GPS. Im a good driver & have pushed myself to walk through (actually, drive through) this fear many of times, driving 6 plus hours alone. However, the fear persists. I have a doctors appointment coming up 20 minutes away and Im freaking out. I’ll go anyway, I just really wish it wasn’t so terrifying, and that I understood why it was. I drive everyday, & Im fine if its somewhere Im familiar with, but when there’s a detour or its a new place, I get extremely anxious. It prevents me from doing things with my kids or friends.

    1. Hi Shannon, let me tell you what it is about new places for me. Maybe some of it will strike a chord. For me, it’s a combination of several things:

      –When I enter a new environment, it’s a lot of sensory information to take in and when you put that together with operating a vehicle and trying to figure out where to go, I get overwhelmed. It’s like it’s too much to process at once and then I get frazzled and afraid that I’m more likely to make a mistake, like misjudge the distance from another car or something like that.
      –Not knowing what traffic conditions to expect and having to react quickly by changing lanes in busy traffic for example.
      –Not knowing how the parking will work and getting stuck in a spot that I either can’t get in or out of and potentially hitting somebody else’s car. I’m terrible at maneuvering in and out of tight spots!
      –I can take a wrong turn or miss a turn even with GPS, because I don’t always react quickly enough or see the signs until it’s too late. While I know GPS can help me get back on track, I’m again afraid that I will end up some place I can’t back out of etc.
      –Related to getting lost, being late is an anxiety trigger for me, and usually driving to a new place involves an appointment of some kind, so that adds to it as well.

      I believe that all of these issues could be overcome with exposure and practice and to an extent I have (as described in the article). But for me, it’s not enough to just practice once. In order for me to maintain that same comfort level, I would have to be driving to new places all the time – much more frequently than I actually need to. That would be a big time commitment, so I’ve decided to not bother and just push through the discomfort on the rare occasions when I actually have to drive some place new completely cold.

      I don’t know if any of this helps, but at least you know you’re not alone!

  12. Thank you for this article. It really helps me a lot to know I’m not alone. We just moved to a different state and I think I’d rather have a tooth pulled than drive. It terrifies me. I almost wrecked once because I don’t understand the roads and they were confusing. No one understands and they think I’m a wimp and more driving will help. I have driven more and it’s not helping. I’m scared and that’s that!

    1. You are not alone! And I totally agree that the “just drive more” advice is not helpful. When you force yourself to drive even when you feel unprepared and unsafe, it’s just going to add to your anxiety and make things worse. What I do think helps (as I outlined in the article) is patiently working on learning how to operate the car and figuring out about traffic patterns in advance. I think “they” learn this stuff a lot faster than we do and don’t see how it takes us a lot more work to get comfortable with it. We have different talents. 🙂

  13. I’m so happy this popped up on my Pinterest feed! I can’t remember when it started but I’ve always had issues driving alone, especially somewhere new. However, I don’t have any past traumas or triggers to go off of to “work” through. It just is what it is. It definitely makes life difficult. I do have social anxiety and bipolar disorder so those things in general add to it. I’ve recently joined Instacart and doordash so I HAVE to drive. Having a purpose makes it a little easier. Not driving for extended periods of time also makes it harder to get back on the road.

    Thank you for this. Although I can’t relate to the triggers I can definitely put some other pieces of the post to good use. We can never grow if we stay in our comfort zone!

    1. Hi Kim, thanks for reading and sharing your experience! I agree that having a purpose definitely helps with keeping motivated.

  14. Dumela in English it means HI, God somehow lead me to this articles to deal with my fear of driving (i am anew driver) after reading this articles i became more confident when it comes to driving, your tips really helps one to be themselves and to take it slow.. Thank you so much, cant wait to read the rest of the articles..much love all the way from SA.

  15. Wow i can literally relate to every single word of this article , thank you for sharing your experience with us.now i know I'm not alone in driving anxiety.

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