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Ask the Anxiety Sisters

Driving Phobias

I have a phobia of driving. Do you have any suggestions?

Abs and I know all about this phobia, mainly because I had it for years, and she is my best friend—which means that we have spent a lot of time in cars together and they were not always pleasant or civil or even bearable.

Abs and I know all about this phobia, mainly because I had it for years, and she is my best friend—which means that we have spent a lot of time in cars together and they were not always pleasant or civil or even bearable. (Another time I will tell you how she threatened to kick me out of her car on her wedding day when I started to get a bit phobic about driving in the rain).

 

Seriously, I was phobic about driving on highways, driving in the rain (even a drizzle) or snow, and, well—just driving in general. Abs and I laugh about those experiences now, but they were anything but funny at the time. Driving phobias are highly disruptive and very common. If you don’t live in a city and you have this irrational fear, you probably want to address it so you don’t end up with SWS (Shrinking World Syndrome).

 

If you wish to skip my detailed story, you can go straight to the suggestions at the bottom, but, if you have the time, you may want to hear how I overcame my driving phobia.

 

Working with a behavioral therapist who specialized in anxiety disorders, I started by getting on the right medications, which included both an SSRI (Zoloft) and a small dose of a Benzodiazepine (Xanax). The purpose of the SSRI was to stabilize me over time—I took it every day, but it did take several weeks to kick in. The purpose of the Xanax was to help with the acute anxiety (panic) and to “take the edge off” of my phobia while I was waiting for the SSRI to be fully effective. I took Xanax “as needed.”

 

I know a lot of you are reluctant to take anxiety meds, and I hear you. But let me just say that I could not have gotten over my driving phobia without medication. Some anxiety disorders require drug interventions just to get you to a place where you can use other non-medicinal methods and techniques. So if you have tried every possible method to deal with your phobia, and you have not been able to make much progress, please consider anxiety meds (only under a doctor’s supervision) as a temporary strategy.

 

Once I was on the right meds and that hardcore panic was under control, I was ready (not really, but there is no other choice) to get behind the wheel. Sorry Sisters, but the only way out, with phobias, is through—there is no other choice except avoidance, and that was not a real choice for me.

 

So, with my therapist’s guidance, I practiced driving for one hour each day on streets where I felt fairly comfortable. I did this for several weeks, just to get as comfortable as possible. I would be lying if I said that was an easy process. Keeping it together behind the wheel was so hard, and I felt utterly exhausted when it was over. But, gradually, it did get easier.

 

Next I drove on bigger roads that were not quite highways, but more substantial than my local streets. Again I did an hour a day on most days. Finally, sweating and teary, I faced the highway. I was petrified but I made myself do it and just stayed driving straight (in the slow lane with my hazard lights blinking) for half an hour. I did this most days for weeks and weeks. At last, I was ready to try it in the rain (my biggest fear). Sometimes, I thought I was going to pass out and occasionally I would have to pull over at a rest stop and take a short walk, but I eventually worked up to an hour of highway driving.

 

For the next couple of years, I continued to drive in the slow lane, and, when the weather was bad, I also turned on my hazards so I could slow to a crawl. But little by little, I became more confident and was able to move out of the slow lane. One day, from the middle lane, I noticed it was raining and I wasn’t having a panic attack while driving!

 

My suggestions:

 

  1. Medication may be necessary when dealing with a phobia.
  2. Enlist the help of a therapist or medical practitioner who specializes in anxiety.
  3. Start slowly challenging yourself and build up very gradually as your confidence grows. If you cannot do an hour, do 10 minutes and build up from there. If you cannot do even a few minutes, get in the car and start the engine and build up from there.
  4. Your pace is the pace, but expect to feel uncomfortable (even with medication). Stay in the slow lane and put on your hazards. Ignore assholes who honk.
  5. No matter what, DON’T GIVE UP. Keep at it, every day and be patient with yourself.

 

Anybody willing to give it a try?

 

 

 

Comments

  • Jayme
    August 17, 2017

    Struggling with this issue now. I do drive when I have to, but really hate it. Sometimes I feel dizzy. Makes it hard to work or do anything. 🙁

    reply
    • Mags
      September 6, 2017

      Jayme, getting through the phobia really took me several years of concentrated work. I would get so dizzy, which is scary when you are driving. I remember driving in the rain to Abbe’s grandmother’s house, a 1 hour ride took me 7 hours because I had to keep getting off the highway and I was so dizzy, I kept getting lost. The one thing I can say is that with a lot of practice, I did get through it. Now when I am driving in bad weather, I am shocked that I am not having a panic attack. The only thing I can say is that if I can do it, anyone can! Remember, work on it slowly and build up to 1 hour at a time. Let me know how you are doing? Mags (and Abs)

      reply
      • Kristy Morris
        August 25, 2021

        I now with Persistence and pati with my self I can do most roads, Except Interstate. How Do you do that? 😭😭😭😭

        reply
    • Anon
      January 16, 2020

      I relate to some of this. It’s really hard and has limited me from a lot of opportunities. It’s even disabling at times. I am 30 and still haven’t learned to drive, or even obtain a license. It has been a huge barrier and negative impact in all aspects of my life. Therapy hasn’t helped either. Went to 5 therapists to deal with this and they all made me feel stupid… because “driving isn’t that hard.” According to them …

      reply
      • Abs
        January 17, 2020

        We are pissed at those therapists! Driving can be extraordinarily difficult for people with phobias–just ask Mags who struggled with this for years…Of all people, therapists should understand the underlying issues. Please please don’t feel stupid–we promise you are one of thousands of Anxiety Sisters who have written to us about this very real struggle.

        Because you feel not driving has become a huge barrier in your life, we suggest you find a psychiatrist who specializes in phobias. He/she will probably prescribe a short term med to help you embark on Exposure Therapy, which is a fancy term for baby steps…

        We have both done ET–it is very hard but ultimately rewarding. Write down your reasons for wanting to overcome your fear of driving and put them where you can see them every day. That motivation will help you get through the therapeutic process.

        Please let us know if we can help you.

        Hugs,
        Abs & Mags

        reply
    • Amy
      July 12, 2021

      Right there with you.

      reply
  • Cindy Winfrey
    September 6, 2017

    I am terrified of driving at night and in the rain. I cant see or judge distances in either situation. Big city traffic and semi trucks are huge anxiety triggers for me. It’s a problem for my family at this time because I’m needed to drive a family member at times and it’s almost impossible for me to do it

    reply
    • Abs
      September 8, 2017

      We completely understand your feelings–so many Anxiety Sisters share your fears. This may be a silly question, but, since you need to drive a family member, can you use a service like Uber or Lyft? This way you can still be responsible for the family member but without the terror driving causes you. Just a thought…

      reply
    • Mags
      October 15, 2017

      Hi,
      I have a slightly different perspective than Abs (as a former driving phobic). First, build up your confidence during the day without rain (which was a trigger for me). Second start with one scary situation, big city traffic, night, or rain…don’t tackle them all together. Third, and this was really helpful for me, when you need to go into the slow lane and put on your hazards, people don’t honk because they think something may be going on with your car. Fourth, practice that one scenario over and over until you can do it for an hour of driving and just keep practicing. You can even do the route that you need to drive the family member over and over until you are really comfortable. The key is to keep practicing as much as you can….it isn’t fun but it does work.

      reply
  • Roxy
    October 7, 2017

    Hello

    I have started to drive again today, my goal is to drive from my house to work and build from there. Normally, I wouldn’t get in a car do to fear and anxiety. But I feel like I need to start somewhere. I am 28 and need to get over this fear I have. I just don’t want to be a burden to my family and just live my life.

    reply
    • Abs
      October 11, 2017

      Good for you! We know from experience how hard this is…you are brave and strong and YOU CAN DO IT!

      Keep us posted as to your progress. It will help the many other anxiety sisters struggling with driving phobias.

      Abs & Mags

      reply
    • Kelly
      May 23, 2018

      Whatever you do dont stop driving like i did 11 years ago because of panic attacks. The worst thing i did was give into the fear and become a recluse. Im going to try again in a few weeks but i will be limited to close distance to home.

      reply
  • Desiree T.
    October 15, 2017

    My 18 y.o. daughter is struggling with this now. Just finished 30 hour driving course, but needs to complete 50 hours of driving. Will not drive on streets with other moving vehicles. We have 3 months so she can take her test with driving teacher instead of bmv. Refuses therapy and meds. The struggle is real!

    reply
    • Mags
      October 30, 2017

      Hi Desiree,
      Your daughter may need some private driving lessons (if possible) with her teacher. The extra hours may help give her more confidence. For your practice, start on streets with very low traffic and try to encourage her to do an hour at a time on those streets. (Even if you have to drive her there.) After she is a bit more comfortable on low traffic streets, help her get to moderate traffic streets for an hour at a time. She may need more than 50 hours of practice because phobias demand a lot of time to get over. On the other hand, I am betting she will be a careful driver! Mags and Abs

      reply
  • Joy
    October 15, 2017

    Thank you for this story, it os inspiring. I have really limited my life by avoiding driving. I also don’t like trains and subways but prefer them to trusting myself to keep it together behind the wheel on a long distance drive. I do local errands, but am still terrified of highways.

    reply
    • Mags
      October 30, 2017

      Hi Joy,
      Yes, I was also phobic on trains and subways but it was not as bad as driving (because I was a passenger). It is really difficult and highways can be so scary. Remember to stay in the slow lane and put your hazards on while you are practicing because you can go slowly without being honked at by other drivers. Let us know how you are doing, Mags and Abs

      reply
  • Sheila
    November 16, 2017

    I haven’t driven in ten years. I feel like I’m going to pass out. I’ve seen therapists and have tried all kinds of medications but to no avail. I live in a rural area and if something happens to my husband, I will be stuck

    reply
  • RaeMac
    January 6, 2018

    Having a huge problem with this lately and it’s putting a lot of strain on my relationship. I haven’t driven my car for probably a month now but I didn’t know how to get back into it. I’m definitely going to try these suggestions. Thankfully I’m in the middle of nowhere and I can take back roads most places I need to go, but there are always exceptions. Thanks for sharing this!

    reply
    • Mags
      June 13, 2018

      When you get back in the car…just drive down the street and turn around. Bit by bit really helps.
      Mags and Abs

      reply
  • Misty
    January 7, 2018

    I have terrible anxiety. This column hit the nail on the head with me. I can usually drive short distances without trouble most days(sometimes I can’t even do that), but can’t drive far distances. I get all sweaty, clammy, dizzy and my mouth dries out. It’s terrible! A lot of people don’t understand and they think I’m crazy.

    reply
    • Mags
      June 13, 2018

      Hi Misty,
      Remember build slowly…practice driving locally as much as possible. When you are feeling comfortable just go a few minutes more and turn around.
      Mags and Abs

      reply
  • ezquietstorm
    February 8, 2018

    So thankful you have found this site. I started experiencing driving anxiety after resuming driving after a 4 month hiatus. I have MS, had an exacerbation that led to a car accident. No one was injured but it scared me enough to limit my driving. Noe mist days i feel capable of physically driving but my anxiety hss become a significant problem. i am the primary transporter for my son to and from high school. I have diet a ton of money on Uber and i have reached out to many friends and acquaintances to help on days when I just can’t make myself do it. it is so frustrating knowing this is all in my head. it is creating SWS for myself and my son and I feel bad for inconveniencing others needlessly. I sinfulness blame mu inability to do things relayed to driving on my MS whee it’s really anxiety related because its more acceptable to family and friends. I finally in the last couple of weeks started seeing an online therapist becaus of course I cant drive to one. I also started taking a natural SSRI called 5HTP hoping it will help. I cry often this is impacting my relationship with my husband. He tries to be supportive an non judgemental but I can tell he doesn’t understand. Neither did some others. After all I’m a Masters Level Social Worker who has done therapy so how could this happen? Hoping this group will be another avenue to help. I read the blog earlier after taking a very anxiety ridden trip to the pharmacy with my grandmother. I decided to color the advice and just drive aimlessly for a few minutes before going home. it was only about 15 minutes but felt better after I did it.

    reply
    • Mags
      June 13, 2018

      It sounds like you are dealing with a lot so be compassionate to yourself. Certainly MS can be a real anxiety trigger and so can an accident. It’s really challenging to deal with a phobia, an illness, and the pressure to hold it together….take tiny steps. I am a social worker too and I think it gives us more empathy when we also struggle, these things are not “rational” they are really a brain illness. Let us know how you are doing, Mags and Abs

      reply
  • Melissa
    August 26, 2018

    Lately I have a problem with being a passenger or even driving other people if I’m going a significant distance away from home. I’m not sure what to do other than try to practice with going to places closer to home and slowly build up? It’s so frustrating because I just missed a good concert out of town.

    reply
  • Misti
    March 14, 2019

    I was in an auto accident unfortunately and am still in recovery a few months ago. Very good tips. Any tips to take the edge off other drivers and safety ? As well being a passenger with anyone other than my boyfriend who has been driving me for months. 🙏❤️ I tried driving for a little while, but my injuries prevent it right now. But I’m healing and have to get back to it soon!

    reply
    • Nicole
      September 10, 2019

      I was in an auto accident a few months ago and have felt a lot more anxious on roads since then. Especially this last month, I haven’t been driving as much. But now am starting to get out more. I drive better at night when it’s quiet and no sensory overload. How do you suggest driving during the day, in traffic with the bright sun shining on you? I find I get more panicked going over bridges than I do main roads. It’s so hard!

      reply
    • Alicia
      March 19, 2021

      Thank you for sharing! I have struggled for years with driving especially after getting into a car accident with one of my sons. We ended up in the hospital where my son had to get surgery to get pieces of glass out of his face and I had to have a neck brace for my broken neck. That was about 8 years ago but I still can’t drive far and I hate making mistakes while makes me make more mistakes. For example, today I struggled backing up out of my driveway and I kept checking my mirror and back but then I paused for a minute or two and forgot to recheck. I’m afraid going run over a kid or somebody else. I have taken medicine to help and I do counseling but I still am have a hard time.

      reply
  • Sylver
    August 25, 2021

    I’ve been struggling with this phobia for 4 Years now. Before that, i had driven for 9 years. I used to love it. I used to feel free while driving. Ever since i had a panic attack in the car, ive been afraid.

    reply
  • Sondra ODonnell
    August 29, 2021

    Thank you for all these stories. It really helps!!!

    reply

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