Three ways to recover from driving anxiety at home
Have you heard of vehophobia? It is not a commonly used term, but it is a common problem.
Vehophobia is the phobia of driving, one of the most recurrent discussions in my therapy room.
Often crash-related, vehophobia sufferers have found that experiencing, witnessing, or hearing about a crash resulted in PTSD and a fear of driving. A fear of driving can also come about because of:
- Learnt danger, from parents who were anxious in the car.
- Having a bad experience when driving, such as intense weather conditions.
- Experiencing conflict with other drivers.
- Having a near miss.
- Imagining a bad accident, through reading a story, hearing someone else’s story, or watching something on the TV.
- A panic or anxiety attack whilst driving.
As with all fears and phobias, there is a spectrum from fear through to phobia, with those that have a fear able to endure the discomfort of the fear despite not enjoying it. The extreme phobia sufferer will not be able to sit in a vehicle even in the most necessary circumstances.
One of the most upsetting and confusing circumstances is having an unrelated panic attack whilst driving. You are happily pootling along the motorway when suddenly it happens. It feels as if the sides of the car are closing in, like a tunnel becoming narrower, shrinking inwards.
Your vision is blurry. Your stomach begins to turn, and your arms and legs become separate as you become hot, clammy, and sweaty. You pull over but do not know what to do. If it is a good day, you will calm down. Otherwise, it will be a call to someone to collect you and the car – but that does not come without its difficulties.
Understandably after a few experiences like the above, many people find that they become selective about the roads they drive along or choose to not drive at all.
How can you relinquish vehophobia and get back behind the wheel confidently?
Remember, it is not your thoughts that make panic attacks so unbearable but the physiological reaction to them.
When your brain interprets something as a threat to your life it will behave accordingly. It will release adrenaline to increase your heart rate so that blood runs to the core of your body. This gives you the resources necessary to fight or flee the threat. The air passages of your lungs expand to increase the intake of oxygen for the same reason. At the same time, the muscles in the body constrict and tighten – including those around the rib cage. All intended to help you run or fight.
Very soon after the initial response, there is an increase in the normal release of noradrenaline. This increases the vascular tone so that blood gets to the organs. The brain will then release a corticotropin-releasing hormone which causes the adrenal glands to release cortisol and blood pressure increases. You may feel your heart pounding like it is going to jump out of your chest as it quickly gets blood to the places that need it.
All the while your human, thinking brain is being taken over by the instinctual brain and losing the ability to function. Hence you struggle to think rationally and act as you normally do.
This is a massive physiological reaction, an instinctual reaction set up to keep you safe from harm. One that you will struggle to control with conscious thought.
If you want to help yourself at home, the first step is to become familiar with this physiological reaction.
How to realign your mind and body
There are ways in which you can align your mind and body so that the reaction subsides rather than strengthening.
There are multiple breathing techniques that you can learn. The important aspect of whichever breathing technique you use is to ensure it is abdominal breathing. As previously mentioned, when your body goes into the panic response (known as the fight or flight response) your muscles constrict. This makes it harder to breathe into your chest.
As you struggle to bring the breath into your body you will panic more – beginning that vicious circle. If you breathe into your abdomen (the way you should breathe) you will find it easy to take the breath in. You can put your hand on your belly button and watch it rise to make sure you are doing this correctly.
2. Use your senses
Make use of your senses to bring your conscious thinking brain back to the foreground. If it is safe to get out of the car, do so. Feel different textures, perhaps the rough bark of a tree trunk and the silkiness of the leaves. Smell some flowers and have a nibble on some food. Listen to the sounds around you to make sure you are hearing and compare the colour of the sky with the colours around you.
Even better is to have an emergency bag that you leave in your car with something to ignite all the senses: some essential oil to smell, a pack of raisins to nibble on (mindfully), some fabric of different textures and some comforting pictures to look at.
3. Create a playlist
Keep a panic-free playlist to play in the car. You can choose whether to include music that triggers calm and relaxed feelings within you, music that takes you back to a particularly happy, carefree time in your life or music that you love to sing along to. Having all three, even better.
By using the singalong music for all car journeys, you will be keeping the Broca’s area of your brain (the talking part) active. The relaxing music will be good if you need to take some time out to realign your mind and body. The music connected to a previous time in your life will trigger your brain to react in the same way as it did during that time of your life.
Please keep in mind that whilst helping yourself at home is a great start, there will be an underlying reason for your anxiety. By reaching out to a therapist you can uncover the cause and eliminate it from your brain’s danger file.
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