What drives anxiety? Causes, symptoms and treatment

A person may feel anxious about driving for a variety of reasons. Whether they feel fear of driving or being in a vehicle, this anxiety can affect their day-to-day life.

Past experiences or existing anxiety disorders can contribute to motor anxiety.

This article discusses driving anxiety and what can cause it. It also explores symptoms, treatments, and alternative strategies that can help someone manage the condition.

The fear or phobia of driving a vehicle can cause a person to experience anxiety while driving. This can cause significant distress and impact someone’s daily life. A person may experience emotional distress while driving and avoid certain situations on the road or while driving in general.

the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) explains that specific phobia is an intense, irrational fear of something that presents little or no real danger. He estimates that 12.5% ​​of American adults experience a specific phobia at some point in their lives.

For someone with driving anxiety, the thought of getting into a car can lead to symptoms of anxiety. Also, a person may try to avoid situations where they have to drive or get into a vehicle. This alone can cause additional symptoms of stress or anxiety.

It is important to note that driving anxiety is not an official condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5). However, a person may have a phobia associated with driving anxiety. Amaxophobia is the fear of being in a vehicle as a passenger or driver, and vehophobia is the fear of driving.

Additionally, a medical professional may diagnose a person with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or another mental health condition if the symptoms interfere with a person’s daily activities.

For some people, driving anxiety may be the result of or witnessing a traffic accident. However, according to the American Association for Anxiety and Depression (ADAA)most driving phobias are not related to an experience with an accident.

Below are some common fears and causes of anxiety related to driving.

Past negative experiences

A person may remember past negative experiences in a vehicle and fear that a similar scenario will happen again. Examples include:

  • driving in bad weather, such as a storm, snow or fog
  • be a victim of road rage
  • having a panic attack while driving
  • to get lost

Existing anxiety disorders

People with an anxiety disorder may experience symptoms while driving. For example, GAD can cause someone to have difficulty concentrating or making decisions while driving. This can cause a person to lose confidence in their ability to drive.

Additionally, a person who is experiencing significant stress or life changes may be susceptible to anxiety.

Driving alone in an unfamiliar place

Some people may worry about getting lost while driving, breaking down or running out of gas. They may worry that their phone has no signal and that they cannot get help if they need it.

Additionally, people may not feel safe driving alone at night or worry about not seeing potential hazards clearly when it is dark outside.

Fear of dying in an accident

Fear can cause a person to consider worst-case scenarios and not trust their own abilities or those of other drivers.

Even though someone may not have directly experienced a car accident, their imagination may worry them about the possibility of dying in an accident.

Being trapped and having a panic attack

People with anxiety about being trapped, such as claustrophobia, may become anxious when stopped in traffic. Also, people who have had a panic attack in the past may worry about having one again while driving.

Loss of vehicle control

The physical symptoms of anxiety, such as a racing heartbeat and sweating, can lead a person to believe they are going to lose control of their car and cause an accident. A person may feel very stressed and uncomfortable, clinging to the wheel and worrying about what other drivers might think.

People with driving anxiety may experience the following symptoms, many of which are also indicative of a panic attack:

Additionally, some people may go out of their way to avoid driving or being in a vehicle, which can have a significant impact on their lives.

Psychotherapy (talking therapy) can help a person overcome driving anxiety. the NIMH advises that several types of psychotherapy can help a person identify and change certain emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.

A person may wish to speak to a healthcare professional about cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), counseling, or mindfulness techniques.

Exposure therapy

A 2018 report suggested that medical professionals often use exposure therapy to treat specific phobias. Exposure therapy is also known as desensitization therapy.

Treatment involves a therapist exposing a person to their phobia in a safe, controlled environment to overcome their fear.

A study 2020 examined the effects of virtual reality exposure therapy on 14 people with fear of driving. Methods included:

  • two preparatory psychotherapy sessions
  • five exposure sessions in virtual reality
  • a final test of behavioral avoidance in real traffic
  • a closing session
  • two follow-up telephone assessments at 6 and 12 weeks

The authors found that all participants mastered the driving tasks they had previously avoided and that 71% demonstrated adequate driving behavior when assessed by a driving instructor.

Other Strategies Against Anxiety

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help someone with driving anxiety manage their symptoms.

the ADAA advises people with anxiety to use the following strategies:

  • talking with a partner, friend, or doctor about their anxiety
  • become aware of what triggers anxiety by keeping a diary
  • being active, having a balanced diet and avoiding skipping meals
  • avoiding caffeine, which can trigger symptoms of anxiety

A person with driving anxiety may consider alternatives, such as using public transport or walking. Walking can be a healthier option for shorter trips.

However, people in rural areas may have less access to public transport and walking may not be an option for people with certain disabilities.

Driving anxiety is a specific phobia that can affect a person’s mental health and cause symptoms of anxiety. It can also restrict a person’s daily activities.

Possible treatments involve exposure therapy, CBT, or other talking therapies. Some people may decide to use public transport or walk instead of driving.

A person may consider speaking with a medical professional about treating driving anxiety.

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