Petrified: Driving While Anxious and Ways to Cope
I hate driving. To put things into perspective, I do not use the word “hate” often. Otherwise, it would lose its power. I reserve it to describe nouns that make life miserable, like Satan or hurricanes, and in this case, yes, driving. There is absolutely nothing that I like about driving. For me, it is a burden to carry so that I can function appropriately in my everyday life. A burden that has profoundly increased over the past week.
I had just enough wherewithal to pull my car into the nearest gas station. Once the car was crookedly park, I cried harder than I had in years.
I got into my first car accident on 12/31/2017 around 12:30 PM. Living in a suburb of a major U.S. city, traffic is less of an anomaly and more of a 24/7 guarantee. Yet individuals continue to drive as if they’re the only ones who have somewhere important to be—and the rest of us are just hurdles to maneuver around until they reach their destination. The day of the accident, I had stopped as several cars in front of me had stopped (for some unknown reason) and was hit from behind. Physically, I was fine, and mentally, I was only a little shaken up. However, the next day, I woke up exhausted but dragged myself out of my bed to visit a sick relative at a hospital—a hospital 28 miles from my apartment. In my area, 28 miles is about an hour-long drive, without any traffic. And as I mentioned before, there’s always traffic. I timidly climbed behind the wheel of my car, the ominous crunching sound that I heard during the accident clanging in my ear. As I eased my vehicle out of my neighborhood, my breath became ragged and my hands jittery. How was I going to make it 27.5 more miles? The tears started as soon as the first car pulled up behind me. It seemed as if that car and every car after it that got behind me were barreling forward at an unfathomable speed.
The crunching sound replayed in my ears. For ten minutes, the tears continued to grow larger, my breath faster and the crunching sound louder until eventually, I was sobbing hysterically at a stop light. I had just enough wherewithal to pull my car into the nearest gas station. Once the car was crookedly park, I cried harder than I had in years—sobbing as if I were an infant in need of milk. I had always been fearful of driving, but now, those fears had been validated. Although I was grateful that nothing serious had happened (i.e. death or paralysis), I had still been hit and my anxiety was in overdrive.
Every time you get behind the wheel, it’s a gamble and I sincerely wish I could extract myself from the game.
Growing up outside of a major US city, every time I hear the news, some variation of the following is reported:
“Two dead in seven-car crash.”
“One dead, eight injured after three cars flipped over on interstate, major traffic delays.”
“Tractor trailer explodes on Interstate, four in critical condition, more at eleven.”
Each morning, it’s not IF there’s been an accident, it’s how many and how fatal. Every day there are a plethora of car accidents. Some accidents are minor fender benders (like mine), others are mangled mushes of metal that test the skills and stomachs of firefighters and paramedics.
Hearing and seeing so many accidents throughout my childhood and adolescence created a permanent fear of driving in me. One miscalculated blink of an eye and you and whoever you’re with could die. Or worse, someone else that you’ve never met, in a vehicle that you didn't even notice, could miscalculate the blink of their eye, and you and whoever you’re with could die or be seriously injured—or, at the very least, have to pay thousands of dollars to repair damages while you sort through the organized chaos that is the car insurance world. Every time you get behind the wheel, it’s a gamble, and I sincerely wish I could extract myself from the game.
It would be uncouth of me to generalize my same hatred of driving to all licensed motorists. Some people love driving and all things automobile related. There’s an entire sport dedicated to driving nauseatingly fast (read: NASCAR). However, there is also a population of individuals who battle with anxiety and for some us, driving is yet another trigger. While not officially diagnosed by a mental health professional, I did, in fact, work as a mental health professional for quite some time, and as I worked with my clients, I began to notice how I also exhibited various symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
So how do those who find that driving triggers their anxiety cope with this necessary evil? Because biking, walking, and public transportation are not effective solutions in my area, I've had to utilize various coping techniques to combat some of the anxiety. Here are a few strategies that have been effective in helping me cope when I feel anxious while driving, especially after the accident:
- Avoiding major highways. This is the most important one. As I’ve mentioned, motorists in my area drive as if they are trying out for the Daytona 500. Through the years, I’ve learned how to find the back roads where the speed limits are a little slower. I’ve found the higher speed limits increase my anxiety levels to overwhelming proportions, particularly after the accident. As an anxious individual, I find the speed limits on major highways to be too fast, which is then exacerbated by other drivers who typically drive 10-20 miles over the posted speed limit. Having to drive 65-70 MPH just so I don’t get mowed over is nauseating and makes me feel like I could crash any minute. The speed limit on the regular streets (i.e. not the highways) is anywhere between 25-50 MPH. Much more my speed (pun intended). It’s important to note that GPS’ rarely direct you to the back roads. They only tend to direct you to major highways, so you may have to do some researching/map reading to find routes to your destination that don’t involve major highways.
- Merging/Changing Lanes. This is especially true if, for some reason, I can’t avoid major highways. Trying to merge when other vehicles are going 65-70 MPH (or more) is far too overwhelming for me. But even on the back roads, I try to avoid changing lanes at all costs. Changing lanes/merging involves far more multi-tasking and risk-taking than my little heart is comfortable with doing. Each time that I have to change lanes, a mini panic attack ensues that lasts long after the lane change is over. One way that I try to minimize this is by driving the same routes to my regular destinations. This allows me to not only get comfortable with the traffic patterns and natural twists and turns of the road but also so that I can memorize which lane to stay in to minimize having to move around too much. I’m not sure how other cities are structured, but where I live, lanes sometimes end rather abruptly, and other cars don’t like to let you over. So this may or may not be an issue for you, depending on how your streets are structured.
- Giving Myself Time. Running late causes me (an already frantic and anxious driver) to drive faster than I’m comfortable with (anything over 45 MPH) and make rash decisions. In order to reduce my stress and anxiety level while driving, I’ve learned to give myself at least a thirty-minute window. Meaning if I have to be somewhere by 9 AM and I know it’ll take me an hour to get there, I leave at 7:30 AM so that I have a thirty-minute window to both drive at the speed that I’m comfortable with or to get lost (which I’m prone to doing). This window also reduces the likelihood that I enter into panic mode. This step I’d recommend for anyone, not just anxious drivers.
- Deep Breathing Exercises. When I start to feel anxious, one tactic that I utilize is deep breathing exercises. One of my favorite deep breathing exercises includes Inhaling slowly through my nose and exhaling through pursed lips (as if I’m pushing air through a straw). This exercise is a mindfulness technique that helps slow down my racing thoughts and decreases rapid breathing while calming my jittery nerves. Doing this also allows me to focus on my breathing instead of whatever happened on the road that triggered my fear. Listening to music or my favorite radio talk show also has a soothing effect on my nerves.
- Positive Self Talk. When I first heard about “positive self-talk”, while completing my MSW, I thought it was a joke. I didn’t think that talking to yourself “positively” would do anything to minimize anxiety. But lately it’s been working for me. While driving, when I start to feel overwhelmed or anxious, I repeat some of the following phrases:“Deep breath, baby girl. Deep breath. You’re fine.” (Strange, I know, but calling myself “baby girl” is oddly comforting.) “Just focus on the car ahead of you. Don’t look behind you.” “Almost there. You’re doing a great job.” “You’re fine. You’re okay. You didn’t get hit.” “You did it! You’re fine now. Nothing bad happened to you. See!” I typically repeat whichever phrases come to my mind until I do in fact feel my nerves begin to settle.
- Reward System. I try to schedule my life so that I don’t have to drive across town too many times. Meaning, I work in a different county than where I live (which is common in my area). When I leave from work, I try to get everything done on that “side of town”. Here’s an example: after work, sometimes I go to my favorite exercise class that is only 20 minutes from my job or I’ll stop by my grandmother’s house who lives in the county that sits between where I live and where I work. On the other hand, when I don’t go to work (only two days out of the week), I try to only go to places near my apartment, preferably walking when I can. In this manner, I “treat” myself after being forced to drive all week long. This method helps to reduce some of my anxiety while on the road because I fantasize about my days off and I look forward to the days when I don’t have to drive far. I also fantasize about going back in time to punch Henry Ford in the gut, but that only makes me feel better temporarily.
Disclaimer: Please note that I am not a psychiatrist, licensed clinical social worker, licensed counselor, nurse practitioner or MD. Although I do hold a master's degree in social work, I am not licensed. These are simply coping techniques that have helped me to manage my symptoms of anxiety. Please reach out to a mental health professional if you need further guidance. If you do not already have access to one, message me and I will send you information on how to contact one. As always, if you're experiencing a crisis, PLEASE call 911.
That day at the gas station I called my mother and sent an “SOS” text to a few close friends. After 45 minutes of tears and hyperventilation, I eventually calmed down. The encouragement from my mother and my friends gave me enough strength to get back on the road and to make it to the hospital to visit my sick relative. One of my dreams involves moving to a smaller town where I could bike everywhere, instead of spending all of this money on a vehicle. It’s not just driving that I hate, the whole concept of spending tens of thousands of dollars (insurance, maintenance, gas, inspection, TAXES, the car itself) to own and operate a hunk of metal that increases my anxiety is frustrating. Another dream that I have is to move to an area where there are not hundreds of thousands of motorists on the road. Perhaps a small town with only one stop light and miles of open road. Unfortunately, for now, these dreams are not to be actualized. For various reasons, it appears that I won't be moving any time soon. So implementing these coping strategies assists me in making the most out of each drive, so that in the end I can make the most out of every day of my life.
Let’s chat! What are some coping strategies that you’ve found to be effective in dealing with anxiety while driving?
© 2018 Sarafina