Overcoming driving anxiety
What's going on in your mind and what you can do about it?
Whether you've been in an accident or it's crept up on you over time, anxiety over driving can be a debilitating condition. Not driving at all means a loss of independence. It constricts your world, hampers your choice of where you live and where you work, and even the types of jobs you can do.
One of the mistakes people often make is that it's all about the actual driving. Experience has shown me it's actually what's in your 'stress bucket' that is heightening the fear of driving; it may not even be in your stress bucket.
Research in the USA has found that smokers experience more panic attacks than non-smokers. Naomi Breslau, PHD and Donald F Klein, MD of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, studied thousands of smokers. The smokers were three times more likely to experience a panic attack than a non-smoker. Some clients have had panic attacks while driving, and it turned out they were heavy smokers and smoking at the time of the panic attack. Their brains have subconsciously associated the fear with driving, not smoking.
If you have been in an accident, you may be experiencing PTSD. Are you suffering from flashbacks? If you are, then using the 'fast phobia' technique that some hypnotherapists and NLP practitioners use can help to scramble those images. It's your brain telling you not to engage in anything it believes to be highly dangerous.
Then there is the car itself. I always thought the smaller the vehicle, the easier it was to feel in control. It wasn't until I drove a 4x4 did I realise I felt much safer being up high and being able to anticipate traffic conditions earlier. I was, however, terrified I'd damage my car and have to spend a lot of money on it. All these worries add to your stress bucket.
Try automatic vehicles too. Not having to think about which gear you're in frees your mind up to focus on the road ahead. I think they are safer cars to drive.
Nine tips to reduce anxiety around driving
1. Reduce the amount of stress in your life
Please start with the small things; get them out of the way before tackling more substantial problems. Are the issues yours to change or are they under the influence of someone else? Change what you can. This general lowering of stress will help you improve your resourcefulness and confidence. Listen to relaxation MP3s, practise meditation, do exercise to bring down general background stress, and see if your driving stress improves.
2. If you are a smoker, give up smoking. You'll lessen the chances of having a panic attack. Hypnotherapy is a great way to give up smoking and has been proven to be highly effective. Smoking also impacts on our brain chemistry over time, and as a result, smokers are more likely to suffer from depression. Low moods deplete motivation and are much more likely to make you feel less bothered about trying to drive again.
3. Use mindfulness exercises to stop worrying. One good practice when walking to and from the car is to take long, deep breaths, and count your footsteps. Focusing on the counting helps to stop anxious thinking.
4. Another mindfulness exercise you can practice in your car when it's stationary is the 'feet on floor, bottom on seat' exercise. Again, breathing deeply to trigger the Vagus nerve into relaxing the body, focus all your attention down to your feet. As soon as any thought pops into your mind, shift your attention to your bottom on the seat. Go backwards and forwards between the two for about five minutes. By the end, you should be much more relaxed and able to drive away.
5. Many people worry about getting lost. It's pretty tricky to get lost in the UK, but it's incredible how some people have no sense of direction. Some will rely on SatNavs, which can get you into trouble if you don't update them regularly, but if I am going anywhere new, I use Google maps and especially Google Street view. It's amazingly useful to see road layouts. Approaching roundabouts, you can preempt which lane to be in, so you don't have to cut people up. You can note landmark buildings, so you know you need to turn at a specific point. Rehearsing a route in your mind before you set out on it will help your brain to be familiar with it as if you've driven it before without any anxiety.
6. Practise driving off the road. If you know of anywhere which you can drive privately without anyone else being on the road, then this can help build confidence around changing gears, braking, and reversing. After I got back to driving again after a break of 13 years, I used to drive around an abandoned supermarket carpark on a Sunday afternoon to practice parking in my new car.
If there's nowhere around you to practice, you can try visualising. Again a hypnotherapist could help you with this process. Called reframing, it helps you to imagine yourself driving while in a very relaxed state. Reframing reinforces your subconscious to realise it's OK to drive, as it's driven numerous times in a relaxed state.
7. Work with a driving instructor. Even if you have passed your test, taking more lessons when you suffer from anxiety can help you reinforce that what you are doing is correct.
8. Purchase a car which isn't new and expensive. One where you feel safe but can park easily. If you accidentally hit a post or it gets scratched in a hedge, it doesn't matter. It will take some of the stress out of driving.
9. Finally, don't forget about hypnotherapy. A skilled hypnotherapist will be able to help you sort out all the aspects of driving that are the real issues, and help you focus on what you want to achieve.