A recent Way.com survey revealed over 50% of you suffer from anxiety while driving. We reached out to licensed psychologist Dr. Seth Meyers for his advice on how to deal with the difficult situation. Here is his very first guest blog for Way.com.
If you feel anxious while driving, you are not alone. Anxiety, in general, is a mental health issue that millions of people face, interfering with their ability to work, be social, think, and – yes – drive. Part of what’s frustrating about anxiety is that it often doesn’t make sense. Why does a person with social anxiety feel unusually anxious when simply talking to others at a social gathering? Why does another person feel overwhelmingly anxious when they get behind the wheel of a car? The short answer is that we don’t often know exactly why, but what matters is what you can do to make it better.
Rather than try to think your way out of an anxiety problem, focus instead on techniques and behaviors you can use to cope with it.
Mentally prepare for your driving trip.
Whether it’s a job interview, a delicious meal, or driving anxiety, preparation is the key factor that leads to success. In the past, you may not have believed you needed to prepare to do something as simple as drive, but preparation can make an enormous difference. The next time you need to drive a route that may trigger anxiety, set aside five extra minutes to sit in your car before you leave and mentally prepare for the drive.
To prepare, you don’t have to seat yourself like Buddha or chant like a monk; you simply need to spend a few minutes in peace and quiet inside your car. By doing so, you are engaging in subtle behavioral conditioning, training your brain that your car is a safe space. Turn on the car and play relaxing music if you’d like or sit in peace and quiet for a long moment.
Say soothing things out loud.
With this point, we’ll cover three bases about what to say out loud: the words you say, the pace of your speech, and the tone of your voice. First, choose soothing statements or gentle commands like these: “I certainly do know how to calm myself down” (and nod while you repeat this); “Okay, now is the time to relax, just the littlest bit;” “I sure can take care of myself.” Next, when you say these sentences out loud, say them slowly; don’t rush through them. The point is to emotionally connect with each word, which then lets you actually relax.
Finally, understand that the tone of your voice is everything. Imagine for a moment that you’re running and trip, falling to the ground and hurting your knee. If someone talked to you at that moment, wouldn’t you want to hear a voice that was quiet, slow, and comforting? Use that gentle and quiet, hushed tone as you recite reassuring sentences out loud as you prepare to drive.
What you wear may matter while driving.
Does fashion matter if you have driving anxiety? No. Does comforting, soothing clothing matter? Yes. Everyone has a favorite comfy item or two they love almost as much as the little blanket each of us held onto for dear life as toddlers. When you have to get in the car and know that the drive could make you feel anxious, plan ahead and wear your favorite soft hoodie for the trip, or wear the scarf that feels good gently wrapped around your neck. Remember that sometimes it’s the littlest and most unpredictable things that can make you feel better when you’re anxious or on the verge, colloquially speaking, of losing it!
Avoid unnecessarily tensing of your muscles.
One of the first things a person does when they feel anxious is to tense their muscles, and this happens quickly and without thinking. Before you know it, you’re driving along, feeling anxious; your forearms tense as you grip the wheel and your shoulder muscles tighten. As you drive, keep your eyes focused on the road and your hands on the wheel, and employ the following component of meditation: practice little shoulder rolls while simultaneously relaxing the muscles in your forearms, hands, and fingers. While these actions will relax your central nervous system, they will also distract you from obsessing about your driving anxiety.
Smile when smiling is the last thing in the world that makes sense.
Sometimes research confirms things we already know, but other times it produces fascinating results. Check this out: Research shows that smiling, even when it’s not genuine and you don’t actually feel happy in that moment, can make you feel happier and less stressed. This finding likely has to do with conditioning, meaning that the muscles involved with smiling connect to memory, or all of the thousands of moments you were happy in the past and smiled as a result. When your anxiety gets triggered while driving – as silly as it sounds – try smiling a gentle, peaceful smile and hold it for a long moment. You’ll think it sounds nuts until you try it and see how well it works.
Don’t forget: While all of these techniques are helpful, they are most helpful when you use them and breathe slow, deep breaths at the same time. The next time you have to drive, employ each of these techniques, breathe, and, above all, drive safely.
Additional resource: Panic Attacks while Driving
Dr. Seth Meyers is a licensed clinical psychologist, author and TV guest expert. He is the author of the self-help book Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve. He earned his B.A. in psychology from Vassar College, and graduated from the APA-accredited doctoral program in clinical psychology at Yeshiva University’s Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology in New York City, where he earned the Jeffrey Sage Award for overall excellence in clinical psychology.
Meyers has worked for approximately 15 years in the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health system, including the last several years which focused on threat assessment and safety in school and college settings.