Please help me with my fear of being in a car...
February 17, 2011 6:16 AM   Subscribe

Please help me with my fear of driving - either as the actual driver or even in the passenger seat.

(please bear with me, English is not my first language)

Whenever I'm in a car, I'm afraid I'll be in an accident. I was in an accident a decade ago (small pile-up at a traffic light, car was badly damaged but no injuries to the passengers).

Whenever I drive in our car, I'm insecure and afraid I'll cause an accident, even though I recently took a few extra driving lessons and the instructor said I drive just fine.

When I'm in the car with someone else, even with those with decades of experience, I feel unsafe. We live in a village with a lot of canals, and I have all kinds of fears of ending up on the bottom of one. Rationally, I know all these fears are unfounded. But for some reason, my body tenses and my mind races.

I've been thinking of speaking to a psychologist about this, but that seems a little over the top.

However, today when we were driving the kids to daycare, my husband hit someone on a bicycle (while I was sitting in the car as a passenger). I live in a country where cycling is very, very common, so we're used to them. My husband should have stopped but for some reason didn't see him and hit him. No visible injuries, the guy appeared to be shaken but alright (we left our number, so he can call us if something does come up).

But now, a couple of hours later, I'm still shaken up, and I'm afraid that now I'll be even more scared of being in the car. Mostly because I know from the last accident that this has an effect on me through feeling that accidents are far from some 'hypothetical possibility'.

Does anyone have any tips for dealing with this? Preferably on my own? Things to tell myself?
posted by anonymous to Travel & Transportation (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've been thinking of speaking to a psychologist about this, but that seems a little over the top.

It really isn't. Not even close. It's the right thing to do, because the fear you have - especially the period of time you have been hanging on to that accident you were in - is not rational. If it was rational, you could 'just get over it'. As it isn't, and clearly affects you a lot, then getting the best help you can to fix this is the best course of action.

If your fear isn't rational no amount of knowledge of vehicle dynamics, accident statistics, mantras to chant, karmic awareness is going to help the fact that your brain is telling you that you're going to crash. That is what needs fixing. If you're shaken up by a teensy knock with a bicycle that you didn't even cause, then your best bet is to talk to a professional.
posted by Brockles at 6:26 AM on February 17, 2011

I know you said you took some recent lessons, but were they just typical driving lessons, or were they designed for people who have fear-issues related to driving?

I only ask because there are driving schools that cater specifically to people who have those issues. A local one (for me, not for you) offers this as the course description:

Skid Control School's Rehabilitative Program is an effective approach to improving and restoring mobility for people who have been involved in a motor vehicle collision. After a collision, many people lack the confidence to handle the entire range of driving situations. Our role in the rehabilitative process is to address the mechanics of the driving task. Through greater understanding of the physics and psychology of driving, the client is better able to cope with anxiety. Together we can restore the pieces of the puzzle.

The Approach
Driving exercises are tailored to the client's requirements and abilities. Through the performance of simulated emergency exercises of our Oakville training facility, drivers tackle the underlying issues related to their recovery in a safe and supportive environment. Training in "real world" situations takes place on public streets and highways through the implementation of risk reduction techniques. This approach helps the driver organize driving habits, taking into account the various circumstances that trigger anxiety. Teaching drivers how to prevent future collisions is an important part of the rehabilitative process.

How to know if this specialized training is right for you.

* You are experiencing anxiety or panic attacks related to driving.
* You are unable to drive in all weather conditions.
* You are nervous to resume driving.
* Your apprehension of driving keeps you from performing normal daily activities.
* You want to regain your mobility.

So what you may want to do is to inquire if there is a similar type of program offered near you. It may not be the full solution to your problem but it could be a partial answer.

Additionally, I'd say force yourself to drive as much as possible, even if you only take little short trips around the block. It can take a long, long time to get your confidence back, and the longer you put it off, the harder it becomes.

I know you've said that you also get anxious when you're in the passenger's seat, but again, I think you may have to force the issue a bit. Get your husband to take you around one block, and then around two, and build up your time gradually and consistently.

Best of luck to you.
posted by sardonyx at 7:16 AM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was a driving instructor for many years and often worked with women who were afraid of driving. However, I live and taught in a large metropolitan city. Most students that had fears of driving had some sort of trauma that was triggered when in a car. Some of that trauma was due to past car accidents. Some of the students had other family members that were terrified of driving and that trauma was passed down. You do have to find a way to work through those emotions.
The number one cause of accidents is poor driving skills - in particular, poor awareness skills. Most people driving do not know where to look when driving, don’t know how to scan for hazards and don’t even know how to recognize hazards. As well, most new drivers have very poor role models. Sorry - but hitting a bicyclists demonstrates poor driving (observation) skills. You are moving a machine that can kill- there can be no excuses. Every time you go out there in a car, you should be afraid! I much preferred to have a student that had some natural and healthy fear than having a student that had no fears (who were very difficult to teach, because they thought they knew it all).

There are many exercises on line to help improve awareness skills. I would also ensure that you have good, driver role models. Is there someone who you are in a car with that you feel safe with? And why is that? What do they do that is different?

Distractions are another huge factor in car accidents. Set limits on what you will allow in your car for the first few months. Is music distracting? – then don’t allow it. Are crying kids a distraction? – then don’t allow it. You also don’t need someone in the car with you that is criticising or over reacting to your driving (not a huge confidence builder!).

I also believe a lot of people are in vehicles they cannot, and should not, be driving. Gosh – a hundred times a day, I watch drivers make unsafe turns or lane changes, or I’m stuck behind them as they desperately try to park their vehicle. People who are in vehicles that they are not skilled enough to drive are some of the biggest hazards out there!

You need to be able to sit comfortably in your car; be the proper distance from your steering wheel, pedals and know proper and safe hand positions. You need to see all around the vehicle and understand your vehicles safety systems. You need to know how to check your vehicle daily for faults and problems. If your driving instructor did not spend one lesson in teaching these skills – then you had a bad instructor.

Learn about what you need to be looking for and where you need to be looking when driving. Most people drive to where they are looking – so having your eyes on the canal is not where you should be looking!! You cannot control other drivers or pedestrians on the road – but you can learn how to predict and defend yourself against hazards. In the larger cities, there are companies (such as BMW) that specialize in teaching defensive driving skills.

Lastly, start out slowly. Make short trips that have some positive goal at the end. Think about your route – what’s the least hazardous way to get there? Thinks about the risks you need to watch for – and plan ahead. I remember one woman I had – that had spent thousands of dollars in driving lessons. Her goal? To take and pick up her son up, from daycare. So, we practised the route, stopped along the way and examined the hazards and talked about safety needs when having a child in the car. She became a very confident and successful driver. You can do it too!
posted by what's her name at 7:33 AM on February 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

I spent a few sessions talking to a therapist about my driving anxiety. I felt stupid and embarrassed because I kept thinking, "Millions of people can do this, why do I need therapy for it?" But it was absolutely helpful. My anxiety was such that I could drive, relatively comfortably, to about three places (work, grocery store, one friend's house), and I could drive, anxiously, to a few more, and then there were many more routes I simply chose not to take or asked my husband to do all of the driving.

My therapist and I talked through what was making me scared about driving, and she suggested I try mindfulness meditation. It turned out to be really helpful. She thought that part of my anxiety was a fear of not being able to control the car and worrying about what might happen if I lost control of it, like here was this giant metal machine and I'm supposed to make sure nothing ever goes wrong with it--that's a lot of pressure. I was so caught up in thinking about all the things that could go wrong, anticipating every possibility, that I was less focused on the actual driving I was doing, which made me yet more scared because it made my driving not great. I wasn't dangerous or anything, I was just so busy worrying about getting into an accident on the highway, or thinking about which exit I needed to remember to take, that I wasn't focused as much as I should have been on what was right in front of me on the on-ramp. Meditation helped me to focus on the present and quiet the "what ifs" about the future.

She also suggested that I create a routine for myself when I get in the car so that I feel more engaged and confident. Before, I'd do things like forget to turn the headlights on because I was so nervous about where I was going. So now, I get in, turn on the engine and lights, put my seat belt on, adjust the mirrors, and then take a moment. Sit and be quiet and take a few breaths. Focus on being present in the moment, not on whatever is coming up in the future. And then I'm ready to drive. It may sound silly, but this two-minute routine has really helped me.

The progress I made with my therapist, combined with driving more frequently for a new job, has made me a much better, safer, and happier driver. I would highly recommend that you at least try it, since taking driving classes and just trying to deal with the fear on your own hasn't succeeded. Your therapist will not think it's a stupid problem, and don't let anyone tell you that there's something wrong with seeking professional help for anxiety that interferes with your faily life.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:59 AM on February 17, 2011

er, that'd be "daily life" not "faily life"
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:00 AM on February 17, 2011

I got a bigger car. (I'm only half-kidding.)

Before that, I had a dear friend that used to loan me his plush luxury sedan pretty much whenever I needed it. The first time I was to drive it by myself he said, "I feel good about this because I know if anything happens, the car is big enough that you'll be ok!" I was floored. Instead, I thought he was going to say something like, "Don't wreck it!" as he handed me the keys. Driving that car for a few years really helped me, I felt like some kind of affection and protection concerning my personal well-being was conferred to me along with the vehicle every time I drove it.

Then I got married and we got two cars. Our first road trip I had massive freak-outs about my husband's driving skills. Back to square one. And that bigger car I mentioned above.

For a few niggling issues concerning my past (although I'm certain my driving fear was also related to my crappy childhood) I had incredible success working with a hypnotherapist for 2 months. If you can find a good one, I can't recommend that route enough - BUT - I had already done a lot of regular therapy in the past and I had been pretty into meditation, too. I think the meditation experience increased the effectiveness of the hypnotherapy, YMMV.

This is a long way of saying that your fear of driving likely comes from another, deeper source. Sure I had been in a bunch of accidents. Plenty of people get into accidents and still drive just fine. I couldn't do that because I had an underlying mistrust of Living Life (or whatever you want to call it.) My fear of driving dissipated as I conquered the real issues in my heart and mind.

Hope all that helps you come up with a solution, or at least with a new way to think about this driving fear as you search out solutions.

Best of luck.
posted by jbenben at 12:04 PM on February 17, 2011

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