One of the most important watershed moments in one’s life, as they grow up, is when one gets their driving license around the age of 16 or 17. It is an exciting and new chapter of life and is a great way to become the popular one among friends—the one who is the designated driver!
However, driving a car is not so easy and straightforward as one expects. No matter how excited you are about learning this skill, you should know that it can be hard and frustrating the first few tries.
The human body is not used to moving at 30 miles per hour. The instinct of the body would be to slow down or to find ways to protect itself from danger. So when you are strapped into a seat and are expected to drive into traffic, it can understandably be anxiety inducing.
But there is no reason to worry. You are not alone in this and there are ways to overcome driving anxiety. The following are some methods I think might help.
Identify Your Specific Fear
One of the first steps, I will admit, is a tough one. You will need to introspect and identify what specifically makes you anxious about driving. Are you afraid that the car will break down in the middle of traffic? Are you afraid of getting into an accident?
Often people who suffer from anxiety feel nervous about being caught in a bad patch of traffic from where they cannot escape in case of a panic attack. After all, you cannot leave your car on the freeway even if you are stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. It is important to identify the specific problem so that you can tackle it head on.
If feeling trapped in traffic is what you are anxious about, you can try and practice some grounding tactics that can help with this and abate the anxiety. If you are afraid of getting into an accident, that is a common anxiety and can be managed with frequent driving practice.
If the fear of an accident comes from some kind of past trauma, you may also want to seek counseling to address that specific trauma.
In a nutshell, folks, find what is bothering you and then deal with it directly. This is a good practice not only for driving anxiety but even for life in general (I present this advice at the risk of sounding ancient), though, of course, it is never the easy solution to acknowledge your problems.
Take It Step by Step
An important thing to remember is that nothing in life is urgent enough that you have to lose sleep over it. Sure, things may seem like the end of the world and pressing problems may gnaw at you every day, but as you grow older you learn to differentiate between what is important and what does not require so much stress.
I wish somebody had told me this when I was younger and eager to please, it would certainly have saved me a lot of anxiety. But I offer this advice to you from experiences I have had the hard way.
If the thought of driving is seeming daunting, it is perfectly okay to take it slow. Don’t beat yourself up about it if your friends have learned how to drive but you are struggling with even taking the car out of the driveway. You can perfect your driving over time, even if it takes you a summer longer than your peers.
Expose yourself to driving step by step. The first day can simply be taking the car out of the parking. The second day you can drive around the block. Go slightly further on the fourth day and keep progressing gradually. This is known as exposure therapy, a method that is often recommended even by mental health experts when a particular activity grips you with anxiety.
However, as with anything else—you know best where your limits lie, so push yourself to step outside your comfort zone. But don’t overdo it.
Hire a Driving Instructor
This is one of the best ways to keep anxiety at bay while driving. If you are in the hands of an experienced driving instructor, you will feel less anxious knowing that somebody who knows what to do in an emergency is in the passenger seat.
An instructor will also be able to guide you through the process of driving better than a parent or any other licensed driver can. An instructor is trained in imparting this education and will train you to tackle traffic, will teach you the correct technique for maneuvering and will also teach you how to parallel park—something that even the most experienced drivers often have trouble accomplishing!
The good thing about having an instructor is that you can keep them on your payroll until you feel confident about driving on your own. The instructor will also be able to give you useful information on how to stay calm on the roads. Any good instructor should be able to instill you with confidence.
Reassure Yourself About Car Safety
If the safety of the car is what is concerning you, then there is no shame in double checking that everything is in order. Carry out routine checks for the brake oil, battery, air pressure, etc.
These are things car owners need to do anyway, but for somebody with anxiety around driving, it may be helpful to check as many times as it takes to feel confident that the car is safe and fit for use.
This is a way of reassuring yourself that you have physically checked all the parameters and taken care of all that is in your control. It is giving into the same kind of impulse you may have to double check whether you have locked the front door at night.
I am not suggesting that you indulge this anxiety endlessly or in a way that comes in the way of your everyday life. But I do think there is no shame in being thorough and going the extra mile for your satisfaction.
The more you know about how your car works and the more in tune you are with the mechanics of it, the less likely you are to be anxious about driving.
Anxiety linked to driving can quite possibly be stemming from some other place. There are several methods to tackling anxieties of various kinds, but meditation seems to be something you can always try as a supplement to whatever else you may be trying.
Meditation will give you the tools to ground yourself when you are feeling anxious. It is one of the best ways to teach yourself important breathing techniques so you can keep your heart rate steady and calm your nerves.
While meditation is something that needs to be practiced daily, there are also quick meditation sessions you can do even while sitting in your car if you begin to feel anxious while driving or are stuck in what seems to be an endless traffic jam.
Acquaint Yourself with Routes, GPS System, etc.
People usually feel anxious by things, places, people or experiences they are unfamiliar with. You do not know what to expect when the situation is new or you cannot predict how a person may respond to something you said.
It is the same with driving. Before I knew how to drive, I would see my parents or other adults maneuver through traffic expertly or swerve the steering wheel smoothly when oncoming traffic appeared suddenly.
At the time, I was in awe of their skill and wondered how they did it. But today, I can do the same things with ease and perhaps even better! I never thought it would be possible back then because I was not familiar with driving techniques. But now that I do know, driving seems awfully easy.
In the same vein, I think it may be helpful to familiarize yourself with every aspect of driving to prevent anxiety. This includes not only the actual skill of driving but even the roads you will be driving on. If you are familiar with the route, you will feel less anxious about getting lost in a place you don’t know.
As a corollary, it is also extremely important to know how to use the GPS so that you can follow the directions in case you do find yourself in an unfamiliar area. Instead of panicking then about directions and how to navigate the system, it is better to be prepared for such an eventuality given that you cannot possibly memorize all the routes in your city or town.
Take the Plunge
The only way to become a good enough driver that you no longer feel scared about driving is by practicing it. I wish I could tell you there was a way around it, but there isn’t. The more practice you get, the less anxious you will be.
As I have described with exposure therapy above, you can take it slow and take an extra step forward every day without taking on all the work on your first day. However, the key to taking it slow is also that you simply do it!
What seems like cars coming at breakneck speed or aggressive motorists right now, will only be regular traffic once you have become used to driving. I remember when I was younger and afraid of riding a bike, my dad would assure me that he is holding me from behind so I would not fall.
However, I did not realize when my dad had let go of the bicycle and I had learned how to ride it. Sometimes, the only thing standing in our way is our fear.
Of course, it is easier said than done. But it is only about powering through the initial phase of anxiety before it becomes a familiar enough activity that your muscle memory takes care of most of it.
Don’t Be Hard on Yourself
In case you have taken the big step of heading out in your car despite your anxieties and feel yourself getting panicky, don’t judge yourself too harshly. Do not chide yourself for even trying. Instead, give yourself positive affirmations.
If you are in moving traffic and are afraid to lose control of the wheel, pull over to the side and take a few deep breaths. Then tell yourself that you are safe. You may be uncomfortable at the moment, but there is no actual, mortal threat to you.
Remind yourself that you will feel better again within a few minutes once this uncomfortable feeling or bout of anxiety passes. This is not how you will feel permanently! Your feelings are valid but they will also pass and it is only a matter of powering through and waiting for them to pass without stressing yourself out further.
Given the associations of coolness and independence with driving your car, there can be a lot of pressure on young people—especially boys—if they do not feel automatically comfortable behind the wheel.
If you are not someone who has taken to driving naturally or feel anxious about driving, it is important to acknowledge that driving a car is not an easy thing, even if other people seem to be doing it with relative ease. It requires a great deal of concentration, hand-eye coordination and presence of mind.
Therefore, anxiety related to driving is a normal thing. It is completely alright to be afraid of getting into an accident or feel nervous because of an oncoming truck. The key, however, is in finding a method that helps you navigate some of these very rational anxieties.
Calm yourself by taking easy breaths and do not take pressure about becoming an expert driver overnight. However, having said that, I cannot emphasize enough the need for regular practice. After all, the only way you can navigate your driving anxiety and overcome it is by doing it more frequently so you become better at it.