White knuckled fingers gripping, heart pounding, body braced. Death feels a hairs breadth away, a possible reality at any second.
No, this isn’t me seated on a rollercoaster, this was how I felt when behind the wheel of a car until very recently.
I can’t remember when driving became the focus of so much of my anxiety, or when the flashes of intrusive thoughts began to flicker across my mind – ‘If I turn the wheel now, I’d cause a pileup’. I’d have shockingly clear visions of cars skidding across all three lanes, smashing into the reservation barriers and bursting into flames. I’d make any excuse not to drive, walking miles with a double buggy, turning down invitations that required a car trip, or loosing sleep visualising that the next days 2.5 hour drive to my parents would result in certain death. There were times my hands shook so much that I had to pull over to free from from the wheel, and times where my driving was unsafe because of the rash decisions I’d make at perceived threat.
Now? Well, now I drive every day with the kids. I’m sometimes in and out of the car more times than I can keep count of. Today alone I’ve driven on two motorways, back country roads and scaled huge multi-lane roundabouts. I’d be lying if I said that these thoughts were all a distant memory, or that I didn’t have to yoga-breathe my way past a lorry. It’s freeing and exhilarating and sometimes scary, but I’m doing it and I’m continuously proud of myself.
Well let’s go back to the beginning first. Bear with me.
I passed my test at 19, first time after a huge number of lessons with an instructor aptly named ‘Vicky Passmore’. She used to drill into me the idea of the ‘blind spot’ telling me that most accidents were caused because of people not looking. I cannot remember shaky hands or shallow breaths, just enjoyment of the freedom I had to be able to drive the 15 miles to college in an ancient Rover instead of having to freeze at the bus stop. I rolled a car at 19 in a back country road, as my wheel caught the crumbling edge of the road concealed by inches of wet leaves. My then boyfriend took my wheel and turned it sharply, sending us up (and down) a bank. It was terrifying, but I got a new (cheaper and older) car, a black Fiat Panda with neon pink interior – my ‘skip on wheels’. We’d just got the internet and I remember googling the car to find that there was one instance in which the flat bonnet had flipped up to hit a windscreen whilst in motion. I don’t know if it was that, or my fear of ‘blind spots’ that sparked these intrusive, visual assaults on my mind, but the nerves began to kick in and I began to envision being squashed by lorries, and my bonnet flipping up. Conveniently for me, I then packed myself off to a campus University and didn’t need to drive for 4 years…before moving to London and not driving for another six. I avoided my fear (I mean, I was a terrible passenger when the opportunity arose, often grabbing the seatbelt or sharply intaking breath as we overtook traffic on busy motorways).
The longer I didn’t drive, the more fearful I became. It crept into my nightmares and I became sure that people I loved would die on the roads. Every goodbye to my family as they left our home, I was convinced would be the last. I’d wave them off with a lump in my throat, holding back tears, as was the intensity of my belief.
Avoiding your fear quickly turns it into something larger in your mind. It’s like falling off a horse or a bike and not getting back on. Your last memory is one connoting an unpleasant experience, so you’ll add power to the belief that it’s ‘bad and scary’. This is especially true after a traumatic event has occurred, and is utterly understandable.
We moved out of London and bought a car, and I decided that my fears wouldn’t rule me. Firstly I gave myself the challenge of driving every day, even though my thoughts tried to find my way out. I made journeys to the corner shop, to the gym. Yes, not the best for the environment but surely better for everyone’s safety.
The issue is that nobody can promise you 100% that everything will be fine when you drive. Nobody can say with certainty that nothing will happen. They can state facts and ratios and likelihoods, but you can’t promise against a rational fear. But the same stands with every fear. It’s an existential dilemma of knowing the risks of life whilst having to live it.
I called the AA, not for ‘hey, I’m 18 and I want to learn to drive’ but for driving lessons. I asked for someone used to and experienced in sitting with anxious drivers. I met a lovely guy who took me on and off the motorway (my worst fear). The more often we did it, the more the anxiety was slowly replaced with the mundane boredom that comes with feeling less bothered by what you are doing over and over and over again. That was the best gift I gave myself. I wasn’t fixed, I’m still not fixed….but I’m in a place where I can feel the fear, ride the waves of anxiety and do it anyway.
Anxiety comes in waves. And when the wave reaches its peak, it can only subside. The thing is that in that moment, we fear that the anxiety will build and build into something utterly unbearable, but breathing myself through those waves (download the Headspace app, or learn to Yoga breathe), has been insanely helpful. Once these waves reach their peak, they begin to subside and your physiological fear response starts to lose effect….all the while you’re still exposed to your trigger. THIS moment makes the breakthrough. The more that you can ride and breathe through the waves of anxiety WHILST you’re driving, the less power those fears will begin to have. You’re literally starving the fear by doing the thing (this is relevant to other phobias too).
Here are my tips:
- Recognise what you’re losing to this fear: What is your fear of driving robbing from you? Seeing family and friends? Being involved in things that matter to you?Have you got a licence? If not, why not? What has been holding you hostage?
- Have a lesson with someone used to anxiety- This was brilliant for me. I voiced my fears and the instructor helped me face them and find that they weren’t as scary as my mind had made them to be.
- Get some CBT – Therapy can absolutely help. Often it’s fear of possibility and power that affects us in driving fear. CBT can help you find a way to talk back to these thought patterns and find another argument that makes more sense. Speak to your GP as you may be entitled to a referral.
- Drive with someone who can reassure you – If you have a license, find a confident and kind driver friend and ask them to come and sit with you. Talk openly about your intrusive thoughts and your fears and let them argue back to them and support you as you are doing what makes you anxious. Hopefully you’ll be able to ride these waves with them and slowly see the anxiety drop.
- Embody a confident person – I know a good few confident drivers, so when I’m feeling anxious, I like to ‘pretend’ to be them! It might sound silly, but it helps me. My Dad used to be in the police force so he’s used to racing a flashing car through busy streets and motorways. I try and draw from his confidence and it makes a difference.
- Breathing – I cannot tell you how much of a difference that breathing can make to the physiological affects of anxiety. Research it and learn some techniques. I’m often doing breathing exercises so determinedly that my toddler asks what I’m doing. It calms the adrenaline and lessens the stress hormone which it turn, slows your mind.
- Find your mantra – If you find mantras helpful, find one that helps and say it repeatedly when anxious. I do this all the time. Mine is ‘everyone wants to keep their car undented’. I know it sounds funny but it reminds me that people are out for their own safety and will generally do what they can to keep them and me safe too.
- Drive Slowly – Stay in the slow lane until you WANT to pass, keep to the speed limit or below. It’s better to be slow and safe than people-pleasingly fast and uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure that I often drive at Grandad pace, annoying those around me. I also tell myself that I can drive behind a lorry on the motorway for the entire duration if I want to! I no longer care if I drive slowly or stall on a roundabout (this has happened many times). If I make someone annoyed, they will get over it. The worst I will endure is a hand gesture or knowledge that they’ve taken home some dinner-table fodder but so be it! What does that say about me? That I’m still learning at 32? Pah. Aren’t we all in some way??
- Thoughts aren’t facts – What I think and imagine aren’t certainties. Just because I fear death in the car, doesn’t mean it will happen. I’d rather see friends and family and take the minor, minor risk, growing in confidence (and therefore taking even less risk), than be missing out on the life that happens outside a mile radius of my home. I tell myself when I’m seeing visions and going at 69mph on the motorway that these are games my mind plays.
- The more you do it, the more you disprove your fear – and the more confident you’ll be. I’ve in no way conquered my fear. I’m in acceptance that intrusive thoughts and anxiety will be a part of my life to some degree but I refuse to let them have the power over me to stop me from doing the things I want to. The more I’ve driven, the more these voices have been shown who’s boss and have started to shrivel into nagging little troublemakers. I see them for what they are and that’s where change happens.
- Set yourself little challenges – Find challenges to set yourself. Drive every day even if for a few minutes. Increase those challenges as time goes on and ask loved ones to support you. Get driving lessons even if you have a licence. Reach out in knowledge that this fear is SO COMMON! It doesn’t have to rule you if you don’t want it to.
My Reframing Anxiety Course could be a good next step for you. It’s a three week self-led course that takes no longer than 5-10 minutes per day. I have used my own driving anxiety as an example of how you can use the tools to address phobias.
You are not alone. You can do this. I’m doing it with you x