How to Overcome the Fear of Driving on th Freeway

There’s a lot of people who dislike, even hate, driving on a freeway. Freeways are the bane of their existence. That’s because they have what is called ‘freeway phobia’. Yup. It’s a real thing.

People often talk about trauma after being in an accident or knowing someone who has. In fact, there’s plenty of research on that kind of PTSD. If you’ve seen the movie All the Bright Places or more recently, Chemical Hearts, you know what I’m talking about.

Psychologist and researcher Frank P. Deane spoke with 190 people who had such fears. Among those who had a history of accidents:

  • 77 percent of them were nervous before the trip.
  • 71 percent of them told the driver what to do.
  • 63 percent of them got easily upset in the car.
  • 58 percent of them don’t drive as much anymore.

Statistics aren’t meant to make you more nervous. They are just to tell you that you’re not alone. But what about those who are inherently afraid of it because there is only so much one can do to stay safe. Those who think speed is fun, screeching tires are thrilling and switching lanes without using turn signals is cool. What about those who are around them? Because when things go wrong, they are not the only ones to get hurt, right?

I’m not trying to scare you. This is just to say that freeway phobia is pervasive but not irrational. Today we’ll focus on the fear itself and what you can do about it.

What Causes It?

Depending on where you live, it’s not always possible to avoid driving on freeways. In fact, if you live in densely populated urban spaces, it is downright impossible to avoid freeways. You can try and take secondary roads but it takes longer and often, you don’t have that much time to spare.

As much as you hate it, freeways are a part of your life and you have to understand what scares you to be able to overcome it.

Here’s a list of the top five reasons you might have this fear. It’s okay if your reason has not made it.

Fear of Driving Alone (Out of Your Comfort Zone)

This gets a lot of them. It is particularly not helpful if you already have a phobia. Sometimes, you will notice that you are fine as long as it is a familiar location. But the moment you have to head to a new place, the anxiety sets in. You start to have so many questions like:

  • Is there enough gas in the car?
  • What if I get lost in an area with no network coverage?
  • What if there is no parking close to where I’ve to eventually go?

It is natural to have these thoughts pop into your head. You are going to an unfamiliar place and it makes sense. You can control some thoughts by preparing in advance. If you are worried about gas, check to see if you need a refill. If you’re worried about network coverage, get your maps to function offline. Ask someone at the destination about the parking situation.

Negative Experiences in the Past

This is understandable and also easy to guess. This fear gets amplified if you already have anxiety or have to deal with bad weather. It gets worse if you’ve been in an accident in the past, right? You’re worried that it will happen again. That’s understandable but those are not projections of a possible future.

Your mind is just playing back the same trauma and those repetitive thoughts are causing all the anxiety. And avoiding freeways is a permanent and rather ineffective solution to a temporary and solvable problem.

Fear of Being Trapped

This is something that people without the phobia wouldn’t even think of. Everyone hates being stuck in traffic. It is annoying. But if you are prone to having panic attacks or have claustrophobia, things can get out of control.

Some people even experience anxiety at the thought of being stuck in traffic on a freeway. That can be terrifying, sure, but also paralyzing. So, they tend to avoid situations like left-turn lanes and driving on the freeway. This is because it is difficult to get out of these spaces.

Anxiety is not just about sweating and having trouble breathing. Sometimes, it targets other parts of the body and causes diarrhea, lightheadedness and nausea. It does not help to be behind the wheel on a freeway when these things are happening.

Fear of Losing Control

We’ve all thought of this one whether or not we have freeway phobia. Except that some people find it to be thrilling while others are holding on to the steering for their life.

This is probably why some people drive too slow on the highway causing a lot of others to get annoyed. The fear of losing control is a tough one to beat too. It requires you to place your trust in yourself. Look at the speed limit. Look at where you’re at. Look at the difference, take a deep breath and trust the system.

And for those who didn’t know this before today, you might want to slow down a second and think about freeway phobia the next time you have the urge to scream at someone for going too slowly.

Fear of Fatalities

This is a big one. And it is different from negative experiences in the past. Sometimes it is bad enough to know that something happened to someone else. You need not have been there. And some other times, reading about these incidents or watching them in movies or documentaries can also trigger anxiety.

The root cause of many types of anxieties is an exaggerated fear of danger. It is also the inability to believe in your own capabilities to get yourself out of this perceived danger.

When you have a fear of driving on the freeway, you have to start by trusting yourself. You can do this by repeating some facts to yourself. You have a license which means that the state trusts you to drive. And this is not blind belief (like a mom telling her tone-deaf kid that they can be a singer) because you have taken a test and passed it. You have some experience driving and so far it has been all good. Even if you’ve been in an accident, mistakes happen. They are not going to repeat themselves.

It is understandable if the fear comes from a lack of faith in other drivers’ skills. But the first thing to remember is that anxiety paints the worst-case scenario in your head. It’s the nature of the illness. The first step is to recognize these thoughts when you have them.

How to Help Yourself

The first step to solving a problem is to understand why it has the impact that it does. We have looked at some of the better-known reasons that cause freeway phobia. Now, let’s see what you can do to get professional help.

And throughout the process, remember that it’s okay to reach out and lean on family members and friends too. But if you find someone, and I do mean anyone, being unhelpful don’t feel guilty about removing them from the situation till you get comfortable.

Now, here’s a look at some practices that have helped a lot of people.

  • Exposure Therapy: If your fear of driving on the freeway stems from the fact that you feel like you might get trapped and no one will come to your aid, here’s what you need to understand.

    This is a type of agoraphobia and exposure therapy is a great way to deal with it. Agoraphobia is a kind of anxiety disorder. The person who experiences this avoids situations or places that might cause them to feel panic as they feel trapped or helpless. Sounds familiar, right?

    In exposure therapy, with the help of a therapist, you spend time on the freeway for only as long as you are comfortable. The idea is to expose yourself to a place that triggers fear in you and increase the amount of time gradually till it is under control, if not entirely gone. As time passes, you will realize that the fear of being trapped or getting no help is probably unfounded.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: CBT is actually proven to be quite effective for individuals dealing with several mental health issues. This therapy helps you identify the twists (or distortions) in your thought process. This is helpful because most phobias are based on nothing. Many of them are irrational too. Through CBT, you will identify that part of the fear and correct them with professional help.
  • Defensive Driving Course: This is typically for those who want to improve their driving skills. Consider your fear of driving on the freeway just a skill that needs to be worked upon (instead of a fear that needs to be conquered because that sounds like a lot of work). You will find books, DVDs and online courses on the subject. Certain DMVs can also help you find the course. Contact them. You can totally do this thing.
  • Get a Driving Coach: If you think that you can’t do it alone, it’s okay to lean on someone, especially when dealing with phobias. An experienced driving instructor is certainly a qualified person to get the job done.

Bottom Line

Whether it is because you’ve seen Final Destination too many times or because you can’t shake the voice of a non-existent backseat driver spewing worst-case scenarios, when things go wrong it affects everyone.

In fact, some researchers say that those who are afraid of driving on freeways without an incident might just be more safe than those who had those unfortunate experiences.


Whichever kind of fear you carry in your mind, I hope the above information was helpful. Don’t listen to anyone who says it’s all in your head. Your fears are real and very much valid. You just need to work on them.

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