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Anxiety While Driving: Causes, Effects, Treatments and Resources

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Anxiety and panic disorder affects approximately 18.1 percent of the population, making that about 40 million adults across the US.

People experience anxiety while doing everyday tasks – even driving.

If you have experienced a panic attack or anxiety while driving, keep reading to learn why it happens and what to do when it does.

What Is Anxiety While Driving?

Motorphobia (driving anxiety) is a condition where you feel fear or nervousness every time you drive or get in a moving vehicle.

It is different than if someone is just nervous or slightly afraid of driving; motorphobia is a condition that can lead the individual to avoid driving at all costs or going into a vehicle.

Driving anxiety does not qualify as an official condition but rather a sub-anxiety stemming from generalized anxiety, trauma, or a specific phobia.

Generally, professionals only diagnose the disorder if the fear of driving interrupts wide areas of an individual’s life.

What Causes Anxiety While Driving?

If you have a substantial amount of stress, are going through a massive life change, or have a genetic history of anxiety disorders, these could be causing your driving anxiety.

Other causes include the following.

1. PTSD from Driving Accidents

PTSD from a car accident would hinder someone’s ability to drive or get into a vehicle.

Also, if you know someone close to you who has been in an accident before, you will be more afraid of getting behind the wheel.

2. Driving Ability

In some cases, people have had driving anxiety due to a lack of self-trust or confidence.

You may fear that you’ll get lost, don’t have an immediate escape route, or fear that you’ll lose control.

Your driving ability will become disrupted because you’re too focused on the what-ifs rather than the driving itself.

3. Severe Weather

It is completely normal to become panicked during a thunderstorm or blizzard, as severe weather can limit mobility.

However, if you experienced an accident during severe weather, trying to drive in a snowstorm or drive in the rain can trigger PTSD and prevent you from being able to drive.

4. Specific Phobias

Specific phobias are irrational or rational fears that only make sense to the individual.

For example, you may be afraid of particular parts of driving, like going on the freeway or driving up steep hills.  

5. Bridges, Tunnels, or Highways

Driving anxiety may only manifest when driving in certain areas, like bridges, tunnels, or highways.

In these cases, the anxiety may be connected to other issues, like a fear of heights (bridges), claustrophobia (tunnels), or fear of high-speed accidents (highways).

6. Dementia

Individuals with dementia have a difficult time remembering things and concentrating.

If someone with undiagnosed dementia gets on the road, they may become panicked if they can’t remember where they’re going or why.

7. Visual Impairment

One primary cause for concern is binocular vision dysfunction (BVD), a condition where your eyes can’t work together to create one clear image.

To correct this misalignment, your body tries to overuse your vision muscles to focus, resulting in severe eye strain.

BVD may cause extreme panic while driving or while engaging in any activity where you need to focus solely on the task at hand.

People with diagnosed BVD experience motion sickness and dizziness before, during, and after they need to drive.

8. Generalized Anxiety Disorder

People with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) may experience worse symptoms when driving.

The cause may not be driving itself, but the situation or bombarding thoughts that become overwhelming.

Signs of Driving Anxiety

Symptoms driving anxiety vary, but the common ones include the following.

vector graphic showing a woman displaying anxiety while driving because she is nervous

Sweaty Palms

The adrenaline running through your body activates perspiration, making your hands and other extremities sweat.

Avoiding Driving

Anxiety will often make people avoid what makes them fearful. If driving is one of your fears, driving anxiety will make you avoid it at all costs.

Racing Heartbeat

Due to the overload of cortisol brought on by an anxiety attack, your heart will feel as though it’s beating hard and fast.

Desire to Stop the Car

When a panic attack or anxiety attack comes on, you’ll feel that you need to get out, run, escape, fight, or hide.

Shortness of Breath

A common sign of anxiety is short, quick breaths. You may feel as if someone is sitting on your chest, squeezing the air out of you.

Dizziness

Due to shortness of breath, you will feel you’re not getting enough oxygen.

You may feel like the road is moving or see stars in your peripheral vision.

Shakiness

With the adrenaline and cortisol levels spiking, you’ll tend to feel tingling sensations or even shakiness.

Panic Attack

Panic and anxiety attacks happen due to a rush of adrenal and cortisol hormones that your brain’s hypothalamus releases because of a perceived threat.

The threat may be irrational or non-threatening, but you, as the individual, interpret that there is danger, which activates the brain’s alarm system.

Signs of Panic While Driving

Panic attacks while driving are not the same as anxiety.

Anxiety gradually develops, whereas a panic attack will come on without warning with significantly worse symptoms.

A panic attack may include extreme and sudden symptoms such as the following.

Sudden Extreme Fear

During a panic attack, instant fear can sweep over you to the point where your heart rate will increase, and all the anxiety symptoms will come on at once.

Your body’s alarm system is on overload, and you must pull over as soon as you can to calm down.

Rapid Heartbeat

Your heart rate will increase with anxiety, but it will be easier to bring it down to a comfortable speed.

With panic attacks, your heart will feel as though it’s beating through your chest to the point where your chest will hurt.

Feeling Faint

Due to an overactive heartbeat, extreme fear, and trouble breathing, you’ll begin to feel faint as if you’re going to pass out.

Trouble Breathing

During a panic attack, it can be hard to catch your breath.

This difficulty breathing may lead to a panic attack, so try to pull over or stabilize your breathing before it becomes a panic attack.

Nausea or Vomiting

As an overload of panic symptoms hits you at once, your body has a hard time trying to keep up, so your nervous and immune system is under attack.

In this case, you’ll likely feel an upset stomach, making you want to vomit.

Effects of Driving Anxiety

If you don’t seek medical or professional advice, anxiety can have considerable long-term effects on your health, such as:

  • Chronic headaches
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Chronic pain
  • Loss of sex drive
  • The constant onset of irritability and anger
  • Emotional instability
  • Increase risk of stroke, heart attacks, and blood pressure problems
  • Insomnia

If you don’t get a driving anxiety assessment, you may experience debilitating long-term fear of driving.

Unsafe Driving

If you must drive somewhere, you may experience unsafe driving by ignoring your anxiety, potentially resulting in an accident.

In the worst case, you may get your driver’s license taken away and ordered to get professional help before attempting to drive again.

Refusing to Drive

Anxiety and panic attacks will cause someone to refuse the fear-causing action.

Perhaps you make excuses to not drive or ask others for rides to avoid getting behind the wheel.  

How to Get Over Driving Anxiety

Treating anxiety may feel like an impossible possibility, but anxiety sufferers have indeed overcome anxiety and panic attacks.

The ultimate goal is to drive without experiencing fear or nervousness.

In most cases, learning to cope with and manage the anxiety before it gets to a panic-driven point is the most efficient way.

Anxiety is treatable, given that you spend the time and energy trying these methods.

Try Relaxation Techniques

Meditation is a worldwide known technique for relaxation.

Many anxieties and panic sufferers swear by meditation as it allows the nervous system to reach a state of calm.

It’s best if you make meditation a daily routine rather than trying to perform it amid an anxiety attack.

When you learn specific breathing techniques, you’ll be able to manage your in-the-moment anxiety and panic when it comes to driving.

Start Small with Exposure

Exposure therapy involves gradually getting behind the wheel.

Start with driving a couple of blocks from your house, or ten minutes at a time.

If you experience panic or anxiety during these small time frames, you’ll be able to recollect your situation, and if needed, you can easily walk home until you’re feeling better.

As you master each small milestone, you will feel safer driving further and for longer amounts of time.

The goal of exposure therapy is to allow your mind to understand that there is no threat.

If nothing happened last time, your confidence in nothing happening this time will increase.

Understand the Cause of Your Anxiety

To get over driving anxiety, you must start defining your triggers.

Why are you experiencing fear while driving?

Do you sense a lack of self-confidence?

Have you been in car accidents previously?

By identifying your triggers, you can move forward with managing and getting over driving anxiety.

Get Your Eyes Checked

If you have binocular vision dysfunction, it’s best to get your eyes checked.

Sometimes the quickest solution is finding out that you have astigmatism.

Perhaps you are simply far or nearsighted.

Seek Professional Help

When all else fails, you may need professional help.

Professional services include:

  • Eye doctors
  • Psychiatrists
  • Psychologists/therapists
  • Family doctors
  • Clinical experts

By seeking help, you’ll be engaging in more unique forms of therapy, which will help you lessen your driving anxiety and other forms of panic-driven causes.

If your panic or anxiety is too much to handle, your family doctor may prescribe you anti-anxiety medications such as SSRIs and benzodiazepines.

Coping With a Driving Related Panic Attack

On the road to overcoming driving anxiety, you’ll need to have safe and stable coping methods in your pocket for times when you feel on edge.

If one of your triggers for motorphobia includes a lack of self-confidence, try enrolling yourself in a driving school so that you are with a professional who knows what to do.

Here are some other coping methods you can try.

Use Safe Distractions

Think of something that helps you feel calm and focused.

Music, podcasts, and the radio work as gentle and safe distractions for some people.

Other forms of safe distractions include mindfulness and grounding techniques.

Pull Over

You must find a safe place to pull over if you’re too anxious and distraction methods aren’t working.

Once you have pulled off the road, you can assess what you need from there.

Some people find comfort in having their therapist on call in times of need.

If a therapist is not a viable option, calling a friend may work in your time of need.

Breathe

Many breathing techniques help lessen anxiety symptoms or in-the-moment panic symptoms.

Ensure that you are pulled over so that you can bring your full focus to your breath.

You can play around with what works for you, but most people find box-breathing helpful in panic situations.

Seek Help

A psychiatrist will assess your symptoms and perform physical stress exams while also recommending a blood test.

There is no official way to diagnose someone with driving anxiety because motorphobia stems from an underlying anxiety disorder.

However, after diagnosed results, your psychiatrist may recommend specific counseling to help provide you with coping tools for motorphobia.

Driving Anxiety Resources

You can reach out to various groups and associations for anxiety and panic attacks.

Some resources include talking to people, while other sources include self-help therapy and courses.

These include:

Wrapping Up

Driving anxiety is a serious condition that can interfere with daily life if not taken seriously.

The best way to lessen driving anxiety is to seek professional help and actively engage in coping skills and managing activities.

Remember, you are not alone, and there are plenty of groups and organizations ready to get you the help you need.

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