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How to manage anxiety when you're driving

September 16, 2019

Feeling anxious while you’re driving a car, or travelling as a passenger in a car, is common if you’ve had a previous bad experience behind the wheel – for example if you’ve been involved in a road traffic accident. By understanding what’s causing your anxiety, and learning how to manage it, you can continue to get on with your life as you did before.

Unsurprisingly, when we experience a traumatic incident our brains remember the surroundings we were in when it happened. When we find ourselves in those surroundings again – or even if we just think about being in them – our brain’s internal alarm system goes off, and alerts us to the fact that there’s a dangerous situation we need to get out of. This switches on our anxiety.

The brain’s intention is to keep us safe, and get us ready to take action to protect ourselves. This is very helpful in situations where there’s a real danger. When we’re just driving or riding in a car however, the internal alarm system simply doesn’t need to respond in that way.

If you’re driving and you notice yourself getting anxious, just become aware of what you’re feeling. An increased heart rate is the most common symptom of anxiety, often accompanied by shakiness and faster breathing. You may also be having scary thoughts.

These are all normal reactions – our bodies are hardwired to react in this way.

It’s tempting to try and manage these feelings of anxiety by battling them. For example, you might grip the steering wheel hard, tense up your muscles to stop any shakiness, or try to control your breathing by sighing or panting. You might change the way you drive – perhaps glancing in the mirror a lot more, in order to feel safer. If you’re a passenger you might find yourself holding tight onto the seat. These behaviours are more likely to make the anxiety worse than better, however.

The best thing you can do is to notice these behaviours, and ask yourself – is it helping? Or is it actually making me feel more tense? Then make a conscious decision to lessen your grip on the steering wheel, or to drop your shoulders down, for instance.

The good news is that anxiety while driving or travelling in a vehicle is treatable. Online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a very effective way to tackle the anxiety you feel, and will help you feel confident again in taking to the roads to get from A to B. CBT works by helping you to understand the root cause of anxiety, and provides strategies and skills that will reduce the symptoms – usually by changing how you think or behave.

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