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Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
If you’ve ever gotten behind the wheel of a car and suddenly started shaking, felt your heart rate increase and felt extremely panicked, or if even the thought of driving causes you to start sweating and become nervous, you may have anxiety with driving.
Even though driving a car is a typical, nearly daily activity, many people may find their anxiety levels rising when they have to drive. But why does this happen? And what are the ways how to get over your anxiety with driving?
Below, we’ll dive into why you may find yourself feeling anxious when you drive. We’ll also cover how to overcome driving anxiety, whether you experience driving anxiety all of a sudden or if anxiety is always present.
To better understand anxiety with driving, it’s best to go over what anxiety is.
Anxiety is a normal feeling of fear or worry that occurs when we find ourselves in a stressful or fearful situation. We can feel anxious about a problem at work, money or relationship troubles.
But when anxiety comes up every day and interferes with daily life, you may be dealing with an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders — like generalized anxiety disorder — are a group of mental disorders that not only affect how you think, feel and act but also negatively impact your quality of life. These mental health conditions are actually quite common, affecting approximately 40 million American adults every year — around 19 percent of the total adult population.
While different anxiety disorders have specific symptoms, there are some common anxiety symptoms you may experience while driving.
Common physical symptoms of anxiety include:
Trembling or shaking
Heart palpitations (increased heart rate)
Difficulty breathing or hyperventilation
Other symptoms of driving anxiety — or anxiety in general — include obsessive thoughts, feelings of panic, inability to stay calm or flashbacks to a traumatic event.
Everyone experiences anxiety symptoms differently, as some may come up immediately or build up through anxious situations. So you may experience symptoms of driving anxiety all of a sudden or even after you’ve been driving for a period of time.
But why does anxiety while driving even occur?
As mentioned above, anxiety is a response to a fearful or stressful situation. If you experience anxiety with driving, you may be dealing with a phobia.
Phobias are actually a type of anxiety disorder that cause an intense fear of specific situations or objects. If you have a phobia, you may have excessive worry over the situation, feel intense anxiety when going through the situation you fear or actively avoid the situation — even with something as common as driving.
The fear of driving — also called amaxophobia, hamaxophobia, ochophobia or motorphobia — is a type of phobia that results in an intense or persistent fear of driving. Some people with this fear may even experience so much anxiety with driving that they can’t go to work, run errands or go to other places.
People with amaxophobia or who experience intense anxiety with driving may be okay with driving but only trust themselves to drive, might only trust a specific person to drive or even not be able to handle riding as a passenger in a car. They may not necessarily be afraid of driving but are more afraid of being injured or dying in a motor vehicle accident.
While a connection between the fear of driving and a car accident is reasonable, there are other reasons you may feel anxiety while driving.
You may feel anxiety with driving if you’ve been in a motor vehicle accident or experienced another traumatic event while in a car, whether you were driving or not. Not only can a past accident cause anxiety while driving but other situations like driving through bad weather or somewhere unfamiliar, getting lost or experiencing road rage can also make you feel anxious.
Experiencing anxiety with driving could also be the result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).PTSD is a disorder that can occur after someone has been through a dangerous or scary situation — like a severe car accident for example.
You might also be afraid of or feel anxious about driving if you have a panic disorder or a history of panic attacks.
Other panic symptoms include feeling out of control, worrying when your next panic attack will happen, avoiding places where your last panic attack occurred and physical symptoms like a racing heart, sweating, trembling, dizziness or nausea.
People with panic disorder may be anxious drivers if they experienced a panic attack while driving or if they’re afraid they’ll have a panic attack while driving.
While driving anxiety isn’t an official mental health condition, a healthcare provider or mental health provider may give a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or panic disorder if the symptoms are severe enough to interfere with your life.
There are a few different treatment options for anxiety disorders or learning how to get over driving anxiety.
If you’ve been experiencing anxiety with driving, there are ways to manage the anxiety symptoms you may experience.
Typical treatment options for anxiety include therapy, medication and self-care strategies. Your healthcare provider can help figure out the best treatment plan for you based on your symptoms, other health conditions you’re experiencing and more.
Psychotherapy (or “talk therapy”) is one of the most common treatments for anxiety, either by itself or with the use of medication as well. According to the American Psychological Association, approximately 75 percent of people who undergo therapy experience some benefits.
The types of therapy that may be used for anxious driving behavior are cognitive-behavioral therapy or exposure therapy.
Considered a “gold standard” of treatment due to its effectiveness, cognitive-behavioral therapy helps you learn how to identify and replace unhealthy, automatic thoughts or what triggers your anxiety.
Exposure therapy can help you confront driving fears, either as a fearful driver or passenger, and is considered an effective treatment with as many as nine in 10 people seeing improvements in symptoms.
This type of therapy involves steady exposure to images or situations that trigger symptoms so a mental health professional may teach breathing and relaxation techniques to use before and during exposure.
One small study also found that virtual reality exposure therapy helped anxious drivers overcome a fear of driving — or being a passenger — by making it feel as if they’re physically inside a vehicle.
Benzodiazepines work by promoting sedation and reducing feelings of anxiousness. This medication may not be the best choice for driving as drowsiness is a side effect.
Antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) may be prescribed by a mental health professional to treat anxiety disorders.
Common antidepressants for anxiety include sertraline (Zoloft®), duloxetine (Cymbalta®) and escitalopram (Lexapro®). However, sertraline and paroxetine (Paxil®) are the only two medications approved by the FDA for treating PTSD, if that particular disorder is the cause of your driving anxiety.
There can be adverse effects to medication so be sure to let your healthcare provider know of any side effects you experience if you start taking any.
Depending on how mild or severe your driving anxiety is, self-care strategies might help relieve your symptoms.
Creating a calming environment in the car might help relax you.
Start small and only focus on the literal road ahead of you — meaning the stretch of road you’re currently driving. While crossing an entire bridge might make you anxious, only focusing on one small section, then the next section, then the next one can help break a large goal into smaller, more manageable pieces.
If you find yourself getting anxious about driving, there could be a few different reasons why.
It can be the result of anxiety disorders like GAD, it could be the result of PTSD from a previous motor vehicle accident, it could be a phobia like amaxophobia (which is literally the fear of driving) — these are just a few of them.
Fortunately, there are also ways to manage and relieve your anxiety symptoms.
Therapy professionals often utilize therapeutic methods like exposure therapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy, or prescribe anti-anxiety medications like benzodiazepines or SSRIs. Often, they’ll use a combination of both medication and therapy.
You can contact a licensed mental health professional and get started with online therapy today, or you can go a step further and start an online consultation that’ll help put you in touch with a mental healthcare provider to see what the right treatment is for you.
You can also look through our mental health resources for more ways to treat anxiety.
Either way, if you’re experiencing anxiety with driving, understand that you have plenty of options — some that are right at your fingertips.
Start your mental wellness journey today.