Anxiety about driving can happen for many reasons. This article breaks down the different types of fears of driving, and what helps with each.
What Is Fear of Driving (a.k.a. Driving Phobia)?
Anxiety around driving can be quite impactful for those who have it, especially those who don’t have someone else to drive them around. Driving phobia is marked by avoidance of driving, marked distress while driving, or even panic attacks when behind the wheel.
Types of Anxiety About Driving
The fear of driving can happen for many reasons; the reason for the fear of driving typically falls into one of the types described below.
It’s important to determine the type of anxiety you’re dealing with, since knowing this will indicate which treatment makes sense. Different problems call for different solutions.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious condition caused by specific kinds of stressful events. These include combat, sexual assault or other violent crimes, being around someone who dies unexpectedly, and some kinds of accidents. For example, motor vehicle accidents can absolutely cause PTSD. Not all accidents do — but the more serious the accident and the more you believe your life was in danger, the more likely PTSD is to occur.
Symptoms of PTSD can include nightmares, intrusive memories, depression, anxiety, and avoidance. The anxiety can sometimes take the form of panic attacks. (See our panic attacks informational page). It’s quite common for PTSD following a motor vehicle accident to lead to avoidance of driving or reluctance to drive.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a surprisingly varied condition that can result in driving anxiety. This typically happens when one has the subtype of OCD informally known as “hit and run OCD.” It’s characterized by intrusive thoughts about having hit someone with your car, and then undertaking excessive efforts to confirm that you didn’t injure anyone.
This obsession can result in a lot of anxiety and can lead to avoiding driving altogether. Even when avoidance doesn’t occur, driving can become the cause of much anxiety for those who suffer from this form of OCD.
As we get older, our eyesight often worsens. This can result in difficulties with the glare of headlights, reduced contrast sensitivity, and changes in our pupils’ ability to dilate (and thus let light into the eye). Understandably, these changes can make people less comfortable when behind the wheel.
Another type of anxiety involves panic attacks and increased reactivity to certain physical sensations. This reactivity often leads to further panic attacks. This cycle of anxiety is called panic disorder. People with panic disorder can have panic attacks out of the blue, or in situations from which they know escape would be difficult. Driving is one such situation — especially driving on highways or through tunnels, over bridges, or getting stuck in traffic jams.
If your driving anxiety tends to worsen when going over bridges or through tunnels, it’s possible you have panic disorder or something like it. Fortunately, panic disorder is treatable with cognitive-behavioral therapy or with medication.
If driving causes you significant anxiety — to the point that driving is quite difficult or impossible for you to do — and the anxiety is not any of the types described above, it may be a phobia. Phobias are simply fears of specific situations (or things) that cause enough anxiety to affect your life. They tend to respond well to exposure therapy, a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy.
How To Get Over a Fear of Driving
The first step in getting over your fear of driving is investigating why you’re having the fear. See above for descriptions of some of the most common types of driving anxiety. If your anxiety is due to PTSD, OCD, panic disorder, or a phobia, it’s quite likely that getting a consultation with a cognitive-behavioral psychologist will be helpful.
If driving gives you panic attacks, you may have an anxiety disorder that is quite treatable. However, it’s important to determine which type of anxiety you have. Panic attacks can occur within the context of each category of anxiety described above.
If your fear of driving is due to problems with your vision, consult with an optometrist or ophthalmologist. As your vision improves, you may find yourself feeling much more comfortable when you drive.
If anxiety or panic attacks that occur when driving are a problem for you and you’re interested in consulting with one of our psychologists, please contact us!