Driving Phobia

Modern driving can be incredibly stressful and result in ongoing and problematic driving anxiety and fear.

There are the hidden stresses that build gradually each time we drive and more obvious stresses that result from involvement in an accident or road-rage incident, or simply from getting lost or having a bad day at the wheel. The cumulative effect of this driver stress and fear of driving can cause all sorts of discomfort in our lives.

Somehow most people tend to think that we should be immune to all that surrounds us on the road; that we should not let ‘road stress’ creep into our lives. People who can’t sleep or who have ‘flashbacks’ reliving traumatic incidents might feel that they should ‘pull themselves together’. How do you start to explain to your friends and family… After all there are people with ‘real problems’ out there aren’t there?

Often people who suffer discomfort. Or delayed trauma, after a road incident feel alone. “I must be silly letting it affect me this way”. But you can gain some comfort in the knowledge that there are thousands of people who have problems that arose as a result of, or that were compounded by, an incident on the road, a crash, a near miss, a child running out, an attack. If you are one of these people, you are not alone.

Some people develop a driving phobia as a result of their experiences. Some phobias seem to have no apparent cause. Phobia. Flashbacks, loss of sleep, irritability, change of character, anxiety, a feeling of loss, hopelessness. These are some of the feelings that people have described to me. You can move on.

‘Driver therapy’ can help you to gain confidence and a new belief that although the past is fixed in place now, your future is waiting for change. You might have already tried to change, you might have had treatment or training that has not worked or only been partially successful; you might be coping be taken sedatives. Whatever your current position, its time to move forward. To gently let go of old, less useful, self limiting beliefs.

Using modern counseling methods combined with in car therapy can help you to get back on the road and get on with your life. Or perhaps all you need is a renewed belief in your ability behind the wheel.

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Recover, uncover or discover…

Recover, uncover or discover…

Whatever problems you have had behind the wheel, you can move forward again. Whether you need to recover from a past trauma, uncover the underlying confidence that is present in other areas of your life and apply it to driving, or discover a confidence that was never ‘taught’ when you you first learnt to drive the starting point is understanding where you are now.

In simple terms there are three ‘dysfunction’ levels at which you might operate emotionally behind the wheel, these are:

Fear, Anxiety, Phobia

Fear is a normal healthy response to unknown situations or situations where we perceive danger. People with a driving fear will often worry before a drive but resolve to get on with it as soon as they are out in the car – often forgetting the fear because they are so engrossed in the driving task.


Anxiety is classified in many different ways and has many symptoms. Typically, driving anxiety develops when ‘fearful’ situations are avoided and then the developing fear is generalized into other situations. If you have had an anxiety reaction to driving as opposed to ‘simple fear’ (but nonetheless real) you will probably have experienced some debilitating symptoms such as sweating, tummy upset, hyperventilation, exhaustion, a lump in the throat, etcetera.


Phobia is a disabling mechanism. It protects you (sometimes totally irrationally) from your perceived danger. Drivers who have developed phobias will have severe panic attacks and be unable to carry on with a particular drive, or indeed they might stop driving altogether.

While many people consider phobias to be a sign of weakness, the opposite is probably true! The ability to automatically, and consistently avoid perceived danger is quite a powerful skill. When the skill can be better employed, ‘normal’ functioning can be restored.

Self help

The following advice is offered to assist you as you overcome your problems. The simple ideas suggested often help in cases of fear and mild anxiety. Some problems might need outside intervention, or in depth personal work (such as self-hypnosis) before you can approach a completely satisfactory result.

Before trying the measures outlined below, check that any physical symptoms are being dealt with by visiting your doctor. If you are on medication for anxiety (or any other disorder) check with your pharmacist that it is safe for you to drive. A good starting point is understanding the mechanism that drives your beliefs about driving.

Understanding your beliefs

In simple terms, we make sense of the world around us because we hold ‘beliefs’. That is, we believe certain things to be true and as long as those things remain true, everything is all right – or at least everything is as we believe it to be … this might be far from ‘all right’.

You probably believe that when you go to sleep at night, you will wake up the next morning – this is something you give little or no thought to, but , if it were not true you probably wouldn’t be able to sleep.

You almost certainly believe that there is a thing called gravity that holds you down to the ground. If you did not believe this you would tie yourself down with ropes and never move again; the fear of floating off into space would prevent you from moving!

Beliefs are normally formed by constant reinforcement – every time you have been to sleep so far, you have woken up; each time you wake up your belief is strengthened. Each step and every movement you make confirms that gravity exists – a constant reinforcement of your belief.

For some, beliefs can be formed in a flash. This is sometimes called ‘one trial learning’. Phobias are often the result of ‘one trial learning’ after a motor accident. This type of self-limitation is so powerful that simply thinking about a situation brings on the symptoms of fear/anxiety – although outside help will be required, you can unlearn as well as you learn, replacing the problem behavior with a more useful and fulfilling approach.

Self limiting beliefs

When our beliefs are useful they serve us well, but there are occasions when we develop less than useful beliefs. Knowing about self-limiting beliefs might not cause them to go away, but it will enable you to understand the process that perpetuates the problems you have experienced.

It is common for people to describe anxiety sensations when talking about driving; these include tension, fear, etc. So lets look at how these sensations help to reinforce the self limiting beliefs that have, up to now, prevented you from knowing that you can be the driver that you want to be.

Tension and belief

For 15 seconds, tense up your body – clench your fists, tighten every muscle in your body and hold the feeling – 15 seconds. The relax … Enjoy the sensation of letting all of the tension melt away allow each part of your body to relax in turn, from the top of your head, gently down though your shoulders and body and to the tips of your toes.

Now reflect on what happened when you were tensed up. Did you notice how, to a degree, being tense ‘cuts you off’ from the world around you. How you have less awareness of what’s going on. Try it again and notice whether this is the case.

The problems associated with tension and driving are as follows:

When you experienced tension behind the wheel, you restrict the amount of information that you gather about your surroundings Some of this information is essential for comfortable driving. Mistakes, or wrong moves made because of the missing information reinforce your belief that you have been afraid of driving – this creates more tension. A vicious circle!

The solution is to learn to remove the tension and gather appropriate information. This can be done with therapy and/or specialist driver training and/or self help relaxation methods.

‘Going inside’ and belief

Try this. Take a minute or so to think about a holiday or other time in your life when you were really happy. Notice, first of all, all the things that you can see on that happy occasion; people, landscapes, seascapes, locations, whatever it is for you – experience the color and depth of your picture, allowing it to develop as you think about what you can hear; sounds, voices, loud, quiet, near, far … Notice the feelings, physical feelings, warm, cold, textures; emotional feelings – you know these feelings well …

Now. What happened to your awareness of the world around you as you drifted into your ‘dream’? My guess is that, once again, similar to the ‘tension’ exercise above, you lost some awareness of your surroundings. Different cause, same effect.

After a driving incident, or during a drive when you have felt uncomfortable, you will have ‘gone inside’ for a few moments, or longer. This time rather than the full enjoyment of a pleasant memory, your brain will have presented you with Images, sounds and feelings of problem memories. Sometimes this happens so fast that all you are aware of is the resultant unpleasant feelings.

The net effect is loss of useful driving information and another vicious circle of belief reinforcement.

Breaking the cycle

Some people are able to break this cycle for themselves by following the simple advice offered on this page. Others will benefit from a little outside help. people break their limiting belief cycle through a combination of driver education and therapy. There is a light at the end of the tunnel!


One of the most effective ways of combating anxiety is to learn how to control your breathing. By learning slow, deep diaphragm breathing, you can slow down all the functions that promote panic.

Please read the “Coping” page for more information.


The inability to relax has effects far beyond the driving seat. Many people feel that the only time they are relaxed is when they are asleep. The truth is, even when sleeping they might not be fully relaxed. If you have suffered from anxiety, your body need re-education in order to gain a normal relaxed state that will be appropriate for safe and efficient driving.