These are all very understandable worries, but overcoming these challenges and becoming comfortable behind the wheel can bring a life-changing sense of mobility and independence.
In this article, we’ll take a look at anxiety and how it can affect your ability to drive. Then, we’ll touch on some things you can do to improve your driving ability at home, as well as some steps to work with your mental health professional and a driving specialist to overcome these challenges and get out on the road.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a broad term for a number of fear-related disorders that collectively impact around 12.5% of Americans. Some people feel anxiety specifically related to driving, while others experience anxiety more generally throughout life, which can impact your ability to drive.
General Anxiety Disorder
One of the most common forms of anxiety is General Anxiety Disorder or GAD. People with GAD can be overwhelmed by unreasonable and distracting worries about simple, everyday events like caring for family, going to work, or preparing meals.
In more extreme cases, people may feel fear and dread to the point where they struggle to perform routine activities, and even experience physical symptoms like insomnia, digestive problems, and chest pain.
Panic attacks are another common form of anxiety. They appear suddenly and can bring feelings of detachment, loss of control, or impending doom, along with a number of physical symptoms like dizziness, shaking, sweating, and nausea.
Though panic attacks (also called anxiety attacks) usually pass quickly, some people are prone to having them on a regular basis, which is called a panic disorder.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), is an anxiety disorder in which the person feels bombarded with intrusive thoughts and feels compelled to carry out certain actions in order to alleviate these thoughts.
OCD can manifest in a number of different ways, especially while driving. For some, this may involve repetitively washing hands, closing doors, or checking the mirror while on the road. Concerns over their own actions and how they affect others can be all-consuming, all of which serve as high-risk distractions on the road.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Victims of car accidents or other traumatic events can suffer from PTSD that leads to a great deal of stress and potential risk while driving.
Some symptoms of PTSD seem comparatively smaller, like excessive worry and vigilance on the road, but these can present just as much risk as more extreme symptoms like insomnia, anger and outbursts, and even flashbacks.
Vehophobia, or the fear of driving, may result from PTSD, irrational fears of the dangers of driving (collisions, road rage, etc), or from agoraphobia, the fear of being trapped in an unsafe environment without the means to escape.
Vehophobia can range from a mild but constant sense of hesitation to a debilitating feeling of terror behind the wheel and may get worse when driving in traffic or at high speeds.
A Note for Your Safety
In some cases, especially if you don’t have a history of anxiety, sudden symptoms of panic can actually be a symptom of a medical condition.
Sweaty palms, feeling short of breath, fear, and a sense of impending doom can be a part of an anxiety attack, but they can also be an indication of dangerous medical conditions like a heart attack or diabetic crisis.
If you’re unsure about the cause of sudden symptoms or having them for the first time, don’t hesitate to seek medical attention or call an ambulance.
How Can Anxiety Impact my Ability to Drive?
Anxiety can impact your ability to drive in two main ways.
For those with vehophobia or general anxiety related to driving, your anxiety and fear are directly related to driving.
It may be terrifying simply to get into a vehicle, or a constant fear and worries may distract you while you’re on the road. For others, you may experience acute anxiety during specific situations, like high traffic, high speeds, or driving along bridges, tunnels, or small roads.
For those with other forms of anxiety, your fears or stress may not be directly related to driving but can provide physical symptoms or intrusive, overwhelming thoughts that make it harder to stay focused on the road.
Sensitivity to light, insomnia, sudden emotional outbursts, hyperventilation, or panic attacks are just a few examples of symptoms that may not be related to driving but can affect your safety behind the wheel anyway.
What Can I Do To Improve My Ability to Drive with Anxiety?
Regardless of why you suffer from anxiety, there are several things you can do that may help you feel more at ease behind the wheel.
Get Your Body and Mind in A Good Place
First, improving your physical and mental health can go a long way to improving your comfort and safety behind the wheel. Reducing junk food and caffeine, adding in exercise and a healthy diet, and avoiding habits proven to generate stress (like social media, some video games, etc.).
Working with a trusted mental health professional can be another excellent step for anyone with anxiety, even if it’s not related to driving (like social anxiety).
Understanding your own tendencies and finding relaxation techniques or medication to help your particular situation can be a big step towards safely getting on the road.
Take it Slow, and Reach Out For Support
There are a number of things you can do before you even sit in a car to help ease your anxiety.
Talking about any fears with family, friends, or a trusted professional can help you put worries in perspective. Many people with driving anxiety find it helpful to read articles or watch videos from others in the same situation, who have overcome their challenges and gotten safely out on the road.
Taking small steps to get comfortable behind the wheel can be another useful strategy. Even just sitting in a car in your driveway, or practicing going around the block can be a huge step towards becoming a mobile, independent driver.
The key here is to form reliable, consistent habits, and build up your confidence and comfort behind the wheel so that you can prevent panic attacks while driving or other risks. Over time, these comfortable, consistent habits can help you transition to more and more freedom on the road.
Am I Too Anxious to Drive?
There are no laws prohibiting people with anxiety from driving, and in many cases, some level of anxiety may actually make drivers more diligent and safe than the general population.
However, the goal is for you or your loved ones to be comfortable and confident on the road. One of the best recommendations we can give for anyone looking to overcome their anxiety on the road is to work with a Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialist (CDRS).
These driver rehab experts are well versed in a number of different challenges you may face on the road and can help understand your situation and how to overcome your unique challenges.
What Does Next Street Look for When Assessing Drivers with Anxiety?
Our CDRSs will meet you at home or wherever is most convenient for you for a comprehensive assessment that should help you understand any obstacles you might face when attempting to drive. There’s no need to study, just make sure to get a good night’s sleep and eat well.
First, we’ll work with you to check your vision, physical ability, and cognitive abilities, to make sure that you’re fit to drive in general. Then, we’ll work with you to understand your particular form of anxiety, including any fears or concerns you may have about getting out on the road.
Based on this initial meeting with you, we’ll be able to either recommend a specific course of action or help suggest other specialists that can help you get out on the road.
Possible Driving Outcomes
In some cases, getting on the road may be as simple as learning some coping techniques like deep breathing, relaxation exercises, or making a plan of action if you notice any problems.
If you have more severe anxiety, you may want to work with a mental health professional to make sure that you’re comfortable with your unique challenges before you’re ready to drive.
Restricted Driving Privileges
With some cases of underlying stress, we might that you’re safe on the road in neighborhoods and during the day, but might want to avoid driving at night or in heavy weather, at least until you are more comfortable in these situations.
Retirement from driving
We’ll very rarely recommend that you should stay off the road entirely due to anxiety, but if we do, we’ll work with you to come up with a customized transportation plan that works for you, using alternative methods like metro transit, rides from family and friends, or rideshare services.
Take the Next Step
If you or a loved one is an anxious driver, but you’re interested in taking the steps to overcome your situation and safely start to drive, you can reach out to us for a free consultation.