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Knowledge Base » Mental Health » How to Overcome Driving Anxiety

How to Overcome Driving Anxiety

Last updated on 20th December 2023

Lockdown has shaken the usual routines of daily life and created changes for the whole world. One of the biggest changes that was faced by the entire population was the order to restrict travel and stay at home.

The prolonged time away from travelling has meant that our roads have been free from the majority of cars creating the usual traffic. However, it has also created a lack of driving confidence across the nation, with many now feeling nervous and worried about getting back on the road. This is what is felt when a person suffers from anxiety.

Anxiety is a mental health condition that can present in physical, psychological, and behavioural symptoms. It is the body’s natural response to a perceived threat of what is about to happen, and is out of our control. This is the way that the body copes with stressful situations.

When we feel threatened the body releases hormones that trigger feelings of anxiety, and this results in a fight, flight, or freeze response. It is natural for everybody to experience anxiety at some point in their lives, in circumstances such as moving house or starting a new job. However, sometimes anxiety can become an issue in everyday life; if worrying becomes disproportionate to what realistically may happen.

Driving anxiety is where a person has feelings of anxiety whenever they know they have to drive, be a passenger on the roads, or even think about the roads. People may experience anxiety from a different aspect of driving such as: driving alone, driving over bridges, roundabouts, reverse manoeuvres, or rush hour traffic.

Although lockdown has caused a lot of drivers to feel a decrease in confidence in driving ability, the skill of driving will not have altered during a break from the roads. Before lockdown, I Am Road Smart teamed up with a leading insurer to survey driving experiences of people in England. They found that a third of drivers regularly drove whilst experiencing some form of stress.

A more recent study by them identified that this figure has since increased following the coronavirus lockdown:

  • An additional 1 in 5 drivers are now even more anxious about driving on the roads since lockdown.
  • 4 in 5 motorists felt that they did not have the required level of mental health support that they needed.
  • 2 in 3 people are scared of giving a lift to a friend or colleague due to fear of catching coronavirus.

Anxiety when driving can have a big impact on a person’s daily life, and dramatically affect how they drive. For example, if somebody suffers from driving anxiety but must drive to work, worrying can consume their thoughts and put them at risk on the roads, as well as disrupt their working day.

When a person has driving anxiety, symptoms of anxiety can appear whenever the thought of driving is triggered. Some common symptoms can include increased heart rate, excessive sweating, headaches, sleep disruption, shaking and panic attacks. If these symptoms are felt whilst a person is driving a car, it presents a greater risk of an accident happening because the person cannot fully focus on the road and dangers that may be present.

Man Suffering With Driving Anxiety

What are the causes?

There isn’t one specific factor that causes driving anxiety. It can be caused by a combination of experiences and mental health issues.

These include:

Lack of driving experience

It can be common for people who have not spent much time on the roads to lack confidence behind the wheel. This can be a particular dilemma for new drivers who have just passed their driving test as the way to build confidence is through experience.

However, other factors can contribute to this including having no family members that drive. This means that a person will not have much exposure to being in a car or on the road. Alternatively, having a parent who lacks confidence on the road can also impact on that child’s driving confidence later in life.

Bad experience

Having a car accident, being involved in a car accident, or even witnessing a car accident can have a lasting impact on a person’s confidence to drive. The accident could have been major requiring emergency services to intervene, but even a minor bump can cause driving anxiety to develop. It can create the fear of an accident happening again.

Fear of travel

A person may have a phobia of travelling in cars or other modes of transport on the road. This fear can take many forms such as, fear of travel itself, a fear of visiting new places, a fear of getting lost, or a fear of getting stuck in traffic.

Poor mental health

If a person is experiencing poor mental health, this can impact on their driving. There may be other issues in a person’s life that are causing them to have low self-esteem and self-confidence, and this may extend to them completing daily tasks, such as driving a car. Our knowledge base includes further information about mental health conditions.

Each of the experiences above can create a fear of driving that, over time, can manifest into physical health symptoms, or changes in behaviour. A person may seem unhelpful by not offering a lift to a friend, but they really may be dealing with driving anxiety.

A person may have certain driving characteristics that can be attributed to their confidence whilst driving such as: avoiding places, routes, poor weather, or busy driving times that could trigger their anxiety.

The route out of lockdown and the associated restrictions continues to progress, but with that comes busier lifestyles being reintroduced into usual routines. An increasingly busy day has an impact on how busy the roads are which could further deter somebody from driving again. However, there is support available to help overcome driving anxiety, as well as many techniques to reduce feelings of nervousness about hitting the road.

How to overcome driving anxiety 

There are many activities that a person can try to overcome driving anxiety. It is important to feel comfortable prior to driving again, so the activities all aim to reduce stress and offer a sense of calm.

Each person has their own experience of anxiety, so certain activities may work better for some people more than others. We have included some ways to overcome driving anxiety below.

Calm the mind

Mindfulness and meditation activities are a great way of calming nerves and the physical feelings of anxiety. They help to clear the mind and keep the thoughts in the present moment, instead of focusing on what could happen in the future during the drive.

Some other calming activities include exercise, or listening to music. By creating a calm environment and state of mind prior to even getting in the car it will be easier to concentrate and react calmly when driving.

Plan ahead for your journey

It can be easy to become stressed when directions are unclear or when driving to unfamiliar places. This can cause stress levels to rise dramatically and impact on decision-making and driving ability. Planning the route ahead can remove this trigger because it will prepare drivers for the roads they need to use.

As well as planning the route, planning the time of day to drive can reduce stress. Avoiding busy times of the day can create a calmer driving environment and create easier driving conditions.

Take a refresher course

Sometimes taking a few additional lessons with a driving instructor can boost confidence and self-esteem. The expert advice and guidance can provide time to ask questions about driving, and correct any anomalies.

Alternatively, if you do not want to pay for lessons you can simply take your car to a quiet place and practise some manoeuvres, or research driving tips to familiarise yourself with the basics (the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency provide advice for drivers online).

Spend time as a passenger

Having a long break away from the roads can make driving become unfamiliar. A good way to reintroduce driving into routines is by being exposed to it again. Being a passenger whilst somebody else is driving allows cars, traffic, and driving to become more familiar again which could help to ease nerves.

Another way to build confidence behind the wheel again is to ask for a friend or family member to be a passenger in your car whilst you drive. That way you will have some moral support during your first trips out and won’t feel alone on the road.

Organise your car

Having an untidy environment can exacerbate stress and anxiety. This is because the cluttered environment can be likened to disorganised thinking. Having a tidy car can have a calming effect on the brain so that thoughts of worry do not consume you whilst driving.

Having a tidy car also minimises the risk of an accident happening because your car will be free from obstacles (such as rubbish in the foot wells preventing you from pressing the pedals properly).

Do short journeys first

If you feel ready to start a car journey it is a good idea to try a small trip first. It can help you to build confidence and complete an achievable journey. Then each new time on the road you can complete a slightly longer route and gradually increase this until the driving anxiety starts to fade.

Overcoming Driving Anxiety

Available professional support

There are other more formal support options that you can try if you have not succeeded using any of the tips above. Professional support can be used alone, or in combination with some of the self-help activities that have already been suggested.

Like any condition, leaving driving anxiety untreated will make the condition and symptoms worse over time, so it is best to try professional support if you require additional help. There are a range of therapies that offer support for this condition including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, or online therapy.

CBT is a talking therapy that can be accessed through a GP surgery, or via self-referral to a talking therapy clinic. After completing a short questionnaire to provide some information about your symptoms, you can be matched to a counsellor who will begin regular one-to-one sessions with you.

CBT aims to challenge negative thoughts to positively influence behaviour. For driving anxiety, it helps to create a more positive outlook about driving to prevent catastrophising about worst-case scenarios.

Exposure therapy is a common way of treating anxiety and phobias. It exposes the person to the thing that they fear in a controlled environment, which aims to help them overcome distress.

After a while of being exposed to driving situations, symptoms of driving anxiety may reduce, and eventually disappear. A counsellor guides a person through exposure therapy and ensures that whilst exposed to situations, the anxiety felt is tolerable.

Online therapy involves talking to a counsellor on the internet in a one-to-one format. This can be accessed privately, where you can be matched with a trained psychologist who can offer advice and guidance to help your condition.

As well as arranging privately, there are many online mental health charities that offer free online tools. CBT and exposure therapy can also be accessed for free on the NHS. NHS therapies are available.

In some instances a person’s experience of driving anxiety could be so severe that they may need to inform the Driving Vehicle and Licensing Agency (DVLA). The DVLA must be informed of any health condition that could impact on a person’s driving ability to ensure that they are safe to drive.

If a person’s driving anxiety is so severe that they require medication, it is important to check that the medication is safe to take whilst driving. This ensures the safety of the person and other drivers on the road.

Even if your driving anxiety is severe, the help and support available can help anybody to overcome their condition. Whether it’s a change in routine, calming activities, or counselling advice that you need, with time you may feel your symptoms reduce to gain more confidence on the roads again.

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About the author

Maria Reding

Maria Reding

Maria has a background in social work and marketing, and is now a professional content writer. Outside of work she enjoys being active outdoors and doing yoga. In her spare time she likes to cook, read and travel.

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