April 29, 2024

Is it Safe to Drive? Overcoming Driving Anxiety

Many of us jump in our car every day and head out to a variety of different places without thinking twice about it. We drive to work, the grocery store, drop off and pick up kids from school, drive to the gym, or maybe even drive to a counseling session. But for some people the thought of getting into a vehicle causes extreme anxiety and crippling fear that can significantly impair their life. If this happens to you, you are not alone. 

While research estimates about driving anxiety vary widely from 5-25%, a recent poll on insurance site thezebra.com found that in the U.S. population alone, over 60% of people experience some driving anxiety, and roughly half the population get anxious when performing basic driving maneuvers such as merging onto the highway, making U-turns, backing up and reversing, or making a hard left turn. Also, three out of five Americans report experiencing a past traumatic driving experience that can directly contribute to driving anxiety.

It is certainly understandable that driving can cause anxiety. Even though tests show vehicles are getting safer, there is more traffic, car accidents do happen, and deaths can occur. So your brain has plenty of material here to use. We also know that anxiety can be a trait that can run in the family. Other factors that contribute to having driving anxiety may include lack of general confidence driving a vehicle and having a history of negative and traumatic driving experiences.

Driving anxiety is common.

Common fears associated with driving may include worry of having a panic attack, losing control of the vehicle, passing out, causing an accident, harming others, contributing to a traffic jam, or experiencing a variety of somatic sensations, including derealization or depersonalization. People who have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) may also have a particularly difficult time with driving anxiety and experience intrusive thoughts of harming others or themselves. This is a subtype of OCD known as Hit and Run OCD. 

Oftentimes to find relief the sufferer will resort to what are known as ‘safety behaviors’, or, for someone with OCD, they are called compulsions. These are behaviors which seem helpful at first because they may bring initial relief from anxiety, but when anxiety returns those affected become reliant on repeating these behaviors. This unfortunately can further validate the potential threat in the person's mind, which can make anxiety increase when it returns and make the behaviors more powerful. This can reaffirm in the person the belief that the safety behavior (or compulsion) keeps what the person is most afraid of from coming true, which makes the sufferer become further dependent upon the behaviors. These behaviors can grow, and before you know it can become all encompassing, derailing a person from driving at all. 

Safety behaviors (or compulsions) may all have different functions depending upon the fear, but commonly they are used to get rid of anxiety. For a person who has OCD, compulsions are also used as an attempt to get certainty about an uncertain outcome. Safety behaviors and compulsions can differ for each individual depending upon their core fear. A trained mental health professional can help identify these behaviors. Some examples of safety behaviors (or compulsions) include: repeated checking (checking for dangers, constantly checking where the nearest exits are, checking if they hit someone), avoiding driving certain routes, driving constantly over to the right side of the road, mentally ruminating whether some bad thing will happen, going way below the speed limit, or constantly seeking reassurance from others if you or they are safe to drive. 

Not only are these behaviors not helping anxiety in the long-term, but they often are the culprit that can keep you trapped in anxiety in the short term. By struggling or constantly fighting off anxiety, it typically causes your body to see the emotion as a threat, causing more anxiety about your anxiety. This cycle can lead to panic attacks. 

Where would you go if you weren't anxious?

Distraction techniques are often considered for someone with driving anxiety, and a therapist that's not well versed in Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy can mistakenly recommend these. They may work for a short while, but distraction techniques are just another form of trying to push anxiety away, which often can backfire, leaving the individual feeling stuck again. Discovering new behaviors with the help of a therapist that can help to break the cycle of repeating the safety behaviors can help people regain confidence. A question that may help lead to identifying some new behaviors could be “What would you be doing if you were not anxious?”. A discussion around a person’s values can also be very helpful, as anxiety can often ‘take the driver’s seat’ in a person’s life and exclude what is actually important and meaningful to them. 

The goal in treatment may be different for everyone, but for long term success we recommend developing skills to tolerate and accept anxiety and uncertainty while continuing to drive. This may seem very intimidating, but working alongside a trained mental health professional you might be surprised what you are capable of. If you are a person with driving anxiety, remember that you are not alone. There are many who suffer from this crippling condition and there is hope for recovery. Effective treatment modalities for dealing with driving anxiety and OCD include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Finding a therapist trained in these interventions can improve your chances for recovery and eventually lead you back into the driver's seat in your life.



J.E. Taylor, The extent and characteristics of driving anxiety, Transport. Res. F Traffic Psychol. Behav. 58 (2018) 70–79, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trf.2018.05.031.