It’s common for driving to trigger panic and anxiety in people. Just the thought of having to drive can make some people extremely anxious. For others, specific conditions may be particularly anxiety inducing, such as when a route involves crossing bridges or passing through tunnels.
Driving anxiety symptoms can range from mild discomfort to extreme distress. If the anxiety is left unaddressed, it can have significant impacts on people’s lives. For example, a panic attack while driving may cause a traffic accident, while avoidance of driving can leave people homebound and isolated.
There are many effective ways to reduce feelings of anxiety related to driving, including self-guided exercises and psychotherapy. Fortunately, about 80% of people with conditions related to driving anxiety have reduced symptoms with therapy.1
Signs of Driving Anxiety
Signs of driving anxiety can range from a subtle change in thinking when grabbing the keys, to a slow-building anxiety while driving on the freeway, to a full-blown panic attack at the mere thought of getting behind the wheel.
Signs of driving anxiety include:2
- Feeling restless, keyed up, or on edge when driving, preparing to drive, or thinking about driving
- Feeling easily fatigue and tired during or after a trip in the car
- Having trouble concentrating while behind the wheel
- Being irritable and short with others
- Feeling tension, especially in the neck and back while driving
- Having troubling or anxious dreams involving driving
These symptoms could present rapidly, or they could grow steadily over the course of many years. A person with a driving phobia could have such an intense fear that they stop driving completely. This decision could cut them off from friends, family, and other positive aspects of life as they become confined to their home.
Signs of a Panic Attack While Driving
Signs and symptoms of a panic attack may include:2
- Heart palpitations
- Excessive sweating
- Feeling shaky
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
- Chest pain and tightness
- Nausea or stomach discomfort
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- Having chills or feeling very hot
- Numb or tingling sensations
- Feeling disconnected from the body
- Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
- Fear of dying
Coping With a Driving-Related Panic Attack
Panic attacks are always troubling. Experiencing one while driving can not only be uncomfortable, but it can be dangerous as well.
Dealing with a panic attack while driving will take intentional, quick action. At the first sign of a panic attack, someone should:
- Acknowledge the physical and mental sensations related to a panic attack
- Let others in the car know what to do and how to respond
- Pull over immediately but safely
- Put on hazard lights to alert other drivers
- Stay in the car to avoid traffic
- Practice and employ healthy coping skills until panic attack passes
The first time a person endures a panic attack while driving, the situation will create tremendous fear and uncertainty. As they gain experience, though, they will discover a helpful process for effectively reducing symptoms and keeping themselves safe.
Why Do People Have Anxiety While Driving?
Driving anxiety does not have one particular cause—someone might have a family history of anxiety that for them is triggered by driving, or maybe they’ve had a recent accident. It can also be a mix of nature and nurture.
Some underlying causes of driving-related anxiety include:3,4,5
1. A Recent Accident
Perhaps the clearest cause of driving anxiety is when someone experiences a recent crash. The accident may trigger a number of anxiety reactions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorder, adjustment disorders, and phobias. It’s estimated that up to 30% of people experience anxiety related symptoms after being involved in a traffic accident.3
2. Inclement Weather
Not all problematic driving situations end in an accident. Having to drive in adverse conditions like snow, fog, or flooding rains, or must drive long distances in unfamiliar situations may experience new anxieties.
3. Specific Phobias Like Agoraphobia
Being fearful of open spaces or crowds like for those with agoraphobia may increase the risk of driving anxiety.
4. Triggered by Bridges & Tunnels
Bridges and tunnels have the ability to tap into and trigger a fearful response from people, even when they don’t have specific phobias. Tunnels can lead to people feeling closed in and trapped, while bridges can create images of collapses or driving over the side.
5. Triggered by Highway Driving
Highway driving involves faster speeds, more cars, more lanes of traffic, more distractions, and more danger. People who are not used to this experience may feel overwhelmed and overstimulated by the action on the expressway.
6. Early Signs of Dementia & Aging
As people age, their reaction times slow and their physical responses are not as sharp as they once were, which can result in increased stress and pressure. Additionally, as cognitive decline and early signs of dementia present, panic attacks could be more likely.
7. Visual Impairment
For some, driving anxiety will be the result of impaired vision. If your driving anxiety is accompanied by dizziness, light-headedness, or a loss of balance, it would be a good idea to contact an optometrist and schedule an eye exam.
Dr. Cheryl Berger Israeloff O.D., an optometrist with over 20 years of experience, expanded on some of the visual impairments that might lead to driving anxiety. “Anxiety and dizziness when driving can be a symptom of an eye misalignment problem. If a person gets anxiety when driving and they feel an off-balance lightheaded type of dizziness they should have a full binocular vision workup. This is especially true if they only experience anxiety while driving.
Most often these patients are not diverging the eyes properly, have a small vertical misalignment of the eyes, or can not shift focus from near to far easily. These symptoms seem to start as people approach their 40s but we have seen many patients much younger. These symptoms tend to start slowly and then increase over time.
Even uncorrected astigmatism can cause anxiety when driving. Driving is a complex visual task, therefore the visual system is the first place that should be examined in a patient with driving anxiety.”
8. Family History of Anxiety Disorders
Having a family history of anxiety disorders greatly increases a person’s chance of developing anxiety. Driving-related anxiety is just one way this could be expressed.
Effects of Driving Anxiety
Driving-related anxiety triggers a negative impact on the individual’s physical and mental health and well-being, both in the short-term through muscle tension and irritability. It may also impact someone long-term, as they may develop a strong enough fear to skip driving altogether and miss important appointments.
Some potential effects of living with driving anxiety include:2
- Chronic muscle tension
- Restlessness or fatigue
- Changes in heart rate and stress levels
- Higher risk of having an accident if driving causes panic attacks
- Likelihood of reduced mobility as someone because more anxious about driving
- Problems related to finances, housing, relationships, and employment if someone stops driving due to anxiety
How to Get Over Driving Anxiety: 5 Tips
Anxiety related to driving a car can be a very powerful force in a person’s life, but luckily, there are many ways for an individual to cope with driving related anxiety. By taking steps to understand your anxiety, explore strategies that help minimize symptoms, and implement behavioral interventions, you can take steps to overcome your anxiety.
Here are five ways to cope with feelings of panic and anxiety related to driving:6
1. Better Understand Your Anxiety
Understanding the root causes associated with your driving related anxiety can help you develop the appropriate coping skills to minimize symptoms. Take a moment to retrace your experiences with driving related anxiety by investigating when it began, when it worsened, and what people, places, and things are involved in the process.
Did your parents exhibit signs of driving related anxiety, or did a recent accident trigger these symptoms? Does the anxiety strike all of the time or only when you drive alone?
Perhaps the most important aspect of this is to understand if driving related anxiety is the main problem or a symptom of a larger problem. If the driving issues are linked to PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or another serious anxiety disorder, professional treatment will be needed to target these larger issues.
2. Set Realistic Goals for Yourself
During this process, you will need to be intentional with the goal you hope to achieve and how you hope to achieve it. Consider the long-term and short-term consequences of your actions.
If your goal is to achieve long-term relief of anxiety while driving, you will likely pursue a certain path. If your goal is to only escape anxiety in the short-term, another set of choices will accomplish that result. Ultimately the decision is yours, but be sure to remember that what’s best for the short-term isn’t usually best in the long-term.
3. Experiment With Relaxation
Whenever high stress and anxiety begin to spring forth in new situations, it is a wonderful time to reevaluate your relaxation techniques. Relaxation techniques are behavioral interventions that help minimize stress and anxiety.
The following are relaxation techniques that are used to reduce anxiety:
- Deep breathing
- Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR): The process of tensing then relaxing one group of muscles at a time.
- Guided imagery: Using your imagination to create calm and peaceful images, promoting relaxation.
- Mindfulness meditations
- Autogenic training: This type of relaxation technique replaces the worry and fear of anxiety with calm and uplifting self-talk.
4. Bring In Your Supports
You probably could confront and improve your driving related anxiety independently, but tackling a tricky issue with your friends and family is always more rewarding and more fun. If you need help with your driving anxiety, bring in your supports.
When dealing with driving anxiety, supports can help by:
- Reminding you of coping skills
- Recommending new coping skills
- Keeping you on track
- Driving with you to reduce tension and stress
Even the process of sharing your story of driving-related anxiety can be helpful. Telling others about your stress and struggles can help the healing process and speed your recovery.
5. Start Small With Exposure
Even though you may be tempted to take bold steps to resolve your driving anxiety, stressful situations require time and patience to resolve. Avoid putting yourself in a position where you are not likely to succeed.
To reduce driving anxiety, spend time thinking about the aspects of driving that trigger anxiety. Ask yourself:
- When does the anxiety start?
- What makes the anxiety peak?
- When do the anxiety symptoms decrease
- What does the anxiety feel like?
By identifying and targeting the facets of driving that cause mild anxiety and repeating them regularly while using relaxation skills, your body will begin to adjust to the physical and mental sensations of anxiety, and the situation won’t feel as stressful.
By exposing yourself to more and more stressful aspects of driving anxiety, you will cause a temporary increase in anxiety but a long-term decrease. Without this exposure, your symptoms cannot improve.
Be cautious, trying to move too quickly can actually increase the driving related anxiety.
Driving Anxiety Treatment
For some people, driving-related anxiety is a condition they can resolve on their own. Others, though, will need the guidance and knowledge of a mental health professional. Mental health therapists can fully assess your symptoms and prescribe a course of treatment specifically tailored to your needs. Use a directory to find an anxiety specialist to work with or request a referral from a trusted medical professional.
Once physical and neurological reasons for increased anxiety have been ruled out by a medical professional, the most effective treatment options for driving-related anxiety are cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and the principles of systematic desensitization.5 In fact, some elements of exposure therapy and systematic desensitization can be conducted using virtual reality techniques to simulate a real-life experience.3
In addition to psychotherapy options, your physician or psychiatrist may also discuss medication options with you, with the goal of reducing the frequency and severity of anxiety symptoms.
Approximately 80% of those with untreated anxiety conditions, like a driving phobia, will go on to develop a chronic mental health issue—this is just another reason why it’s crucial to get professional help if you’re dealing with any type of anxiety.1
Driving related anxiety may seem like a unique and socially isolating situation. In reality, many people across the U.S. and around the world experience some level of stress, tension, and discomfort when driving. While “driving anxiety” is not technically a diagnosable mental health disorder, the symptoms are real, powerful, and can get progressively worse if ignored. Speaking with a mental health professional is recommended to ensure quality of life is not diminished.
For Further Reading
Driving related anxiety may seem like a unique and socially isolating situation. In reality, many people across the U.S. and around the world experience some level of stress, tension, and discomfort when driving.
There are reputable groups working to address and treat all types of anxiety disorders. Some of the most helpful resources for people with anxiety include:
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America
- AARP: has a number of resources for aging drivers
- Best Books on Anxiety & Anxiety Disorders
Driving Anxiety Infographics