Driving phobia

What is driving phobia?

Fear of Driving (or driving phobia) is an excessive and irrational fear of driving, of being or feeling out of control whilst driving, causing dread, panic and avoidance. The sufferer recognizes that the fear is excessive or unreasonable but feels powerless to change their responses.

The sufferer either avoids driving (or avoids particular roads or driving situations) or endures it with intense distress and discomfort. This interferes significantly with normal daily routines (work, social activities, and relationships).

Fear of driving is distinguished by the intense, often debilitating, fear it generates. At its worst it will end in a panic attack. So it’s way beyond driving nerves. This is hardcore white-knuckle fear.

The physical symptoms of driving phobia

Physical symptoms will come on when starting a journey or en route when exposed to a particular driving situation (typically a certain kind of road). The symptoms usually stop once the driver is out of the situation or out of the car.

For some drivers these symptoms may start at a lower level sometime before actually driving, and persist for sometime afterwards.

Typical symptoms of driving phobia will include some of the following:

  • Tightness in the chest
  • Sweating (especially the palms) and shaking
  • Physical tension (especially in the arms and hands)
  • Light headiness or dizziness
  • Shortness of breath or over-breathing
  • Rapid heartbeat or palpitations

For a small percentage of sufferers, some of these symptoms may also be experienced as a passenger.

The psychological symptoms of driving phobia

Before driving there maybe a build-up of dread and anxiety for hours or even days before a “big journey”, leading to sleeping problems and loss of appetite. When actually driving, psychological symptoms may include feeling that you:

  • Might lose control
  • Might do something stupid
  • Might swerve
  • Are being pulled or drawn to the left or right
  • The car might tip over
  • Have to focus and concentrate intensely
  • Can’t tolerate distractions (engage in conversation, listen to the radio)
How people respond

When these physical and psychological symptoms come on, most drivers will do some of the following when actually driving:

  • Slow right down (sometimes to a dangerously slow speed). This can often seem involuntary.
  • Pull over, stop the car and try and calm down before driving on or having someone else take over.
  • Drive on with great discomfort.
  • Try and reduce their discomfort by forcing themselves to think of other things.
  • Strategies including reciting the alphabet backwards, counting backwards or singing at the top of their voice.

Many people, of course, will respond by not even going there. They will simply avoid driving on particular roads or avoid driving completely.

Who driving phobia affects

Driving phobia can affect anyone.

Most people with a driving phobia are normal, intelligent, well-balanced people who once drove happily but are now anxious and panicky when driving or else don’t drive at all. Over the years we have treated all kinds of drivers, some with exceptional skills and experience, including police drivers and a rally driver. We have treated doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists.

So it can happen to anyone and it’s never a skills thing. In fact most people with driving phobias are good, competent drivers.

The causes of driving phobia

Driving phobia is very rarely caused by a traumatic or unsettling event (such as an accident) but is usually caused by something milder (like suddenly feeling a little strange when driving at speed on a multi-lane highway) which normally would be okay but at the time the individual was perhaps a lot more stressed that normal (background stress levels raised by other things like tiredness or by financial, work or relationship problems) and this tipped them into a mild panic attack. This builds into a phobia. You can read more about exactly how this happens here: Making sense of drivng phobia.

So driving phobia is linked to different things for different people – to driving on wide open roads like major highways (most common), to dual carriageways, small roads, hills, high roads, bridges, flyovers, particular routes, junctions, to maneuvers (especially overtaking), to being boxed in by heavy traffic, to being close to particular vehicles (usually large or high-sided ones) or to being limited to a particular speed. It often starts on big highways and spreads to smaller roads, restricting the routes, speed and distances that can be traveled.

Safety and avoidance behaviours

Safety and avoidance strategies are used by the sufferer to reduce the perceived danger and to control, conceal and accommodate their panic and embarrassment.

As more and more routes or situations are avoided, the sufferer’s world starts to close in. Energy and time are used in planning and driving alternative routes. They may have to drive at times when the roads are clear. Partners and friends may have to drive instead or take over en route. Excuses are made to avoid giving people lifts or traveling with friends and colleagues. Jobs, promotions and social invitations may be turned down. People and situations may be managed and manipulated.

Eventually these “solutions” become part of the problem. When this happens most sufferers think “enough is enough” and do something about it. And get help.

Most people who read this page instinctively relate to it – like it could have been written about them. If this sounds like you and you are serious about getting help then have a look at the The Driving Phobia Cure and see how it can help you.