How To Deal With Driving Anxiety

How To Deal With Driving Anxiety

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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