What has helped you with driving anxiety?
December 10, 2018 9:49 AM   Subscribe

I need to get a grip on my anxiety related to driving in the Greater Toronto Area. I panic when merging. I need to get over it - what’s worked for you?

- The GTA has some of the worst traffic in North America

- We have some of the most aggro drivers I’ve ever seen

- Traffic law enforcement is non-existent

- When I was 19, a car I was in was totalled by a 16-wheeler while attempting to merge (everyone was fine, I had minor neck injuries; the driver - not me - went into shock, and I actually was the McGuyver of the situation [threw the car into neutral and steered us out of traffic from the passenger seat, this fact is not reassuring today])

I used to be a decent driver (took the Young Drivers of Canada course, am both defensive in approach and assertive, but driving around here has gotten hairier over the five years I haven’t driven, I DO NOT TRUST anyone else on the road who’s not a professional driver, and even then)

- I have full-on panic attacks.

- A few years ago, I took lessons again and it didn’t help

- If I don’t learn to drive, taking my senior parent to appointments on two transit systems across this disaster of a city will suck dry whatever life I’ve got left. It takes 3/4 of the day. I can’t afford to do that anymore. My sibs and I have talked about pitching in for a cab card for use in emergencies, but being able to drive would be a huge help

- One option is to avoid highways, like I used to. These days that just takes too long.
posted by cotton dress sock to Human Relations (21 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
GPS. They will warn you in advance of a merge. Then tell you when to do it, and they will tell you which lane to stay in. It's like having a patient friend sitting beside you. If you don't merge at the right time because of cold feet/slow impulses, they'll also tell you how to take an alternate route to get to where you're going. It helps A LOT.
posted by Violet Blue at 10:09 AM on December 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

I know you said you've had lessons, but I still recommend going for a refresher course. There are places, like this one in Oakville, that specialize (or at least offer courses) in teaching nervous drivers or drivers who have had bad past experiences with accidents and collisions.

Even just being out on skid pad and facing a situation where you have to bring an out-of-control car into control (and learning how to do so properly) really teaches you a lot about your capabilities to handle unexpected and stressful situations on the road.

I've seen how much worse traffic has gotten in Toronto, and how much longer it takes to get from Point A to Point B. It's totally nerve-wrecking, even for people who have to commute by car every day. It really is a terrible driving environment. The sad part is one of the only ways to learn to deal with the situation is to just do it (and believe me I hate using that phrase). The more you drive on those roads and highways and the more you experience the conditions and get to know yourself and your reactions and your vehicle, the more confident you will become. I'm not saying this is a short or an easy process because it's not. And even once you start to make progress there are days when your nerves come back or when the road or the conditions just don't feel right. Rain, for example causes complete chaos on Toronto's road, not to mention snow or ice. If you keep doing, it however, the chances are good that you'll eventually adapt and be better able to cope with the stresses of the situation.

I guess you could always try the Ask favourite recommendation, therapy, to help with anxiety but that's nothing I have any experience with and can't make any recommendations.
posted by sardonyx at 10:11 AM on December 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

If you're having actual full-on panic attacks, I would say this is one time when working with a professional therapist is likely to actually be more useful than most other things. There are established techniques for helping people work past just these sorts of problems.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:12 AM on December 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

My only real advice to you here is do not avoid highways. It is much harder to get back in the saddle than to stay in the saddle. I had a fear of flying that kept me off planes for 19 years because I stopped flying and at some point could not imagine flying. On the other hand, I developed some anxiety (I still don't really know what it was about) involving my driving commute, and had no real alternative but to keep doing it (there was a route that avoided some of the things that were making me anxious but it took forever and I had a come-to-Jesus moment where I thought: do I really want to have to do this?) and it slowly went away. It wasn't heaps of fun while I was toughing it out, but it did go away.
posted by Smearcase at 10:12 AM on December 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

You have sort of an X/Y problem here (where you need to get over your driving anxiety but you also have a bunch of other things that could make your life easier w/r/t your senior parent) but I will deal with driving anxiety.

Things that helped me

1. anxiety generally. Making sure that before I dealt with a drive I had gotten decent sleep, wasn't jacked up on coffee, felt basically mentally prepared, didn't have to use the bathroom
2. made sure all my mirrors and sight lines were lining up well. At some point I moved from a low car to a high car and it changed a lot of things for me, being able to see better and feeling like I wasn't visible
3. realizing that for the majority of people, being PREDICTABLE is the most important part of the social contract of driving and so trying to thing "What is the normal move here?"
4. realizing that even though #3 is the norm, a lot of drivers have ... other challenges that make them unable to accomplish this, so trying to be aware of other drivers in a way that is useful but not "OMG everyone is trying to kill me!!" (like I found I was less anxious if I stopped staring at people who were tailgating, even though that's not a safe move, it's not one likely to kill me)
5. no radio, no passenger chatter. I would have some people in my car who would not stop talking even when I was doing some difficult merge or something and I'd tell them before we started "Hey I need this ride to be a bit quiet so I can concentrate"

But seriously, driving through a panic attack is not only not good for you, it's not good for other drivers. Treating the underlying issue to the best of your ability will help a lot with the stated issue.
posted by jessamyn at 10:14 AM on December 10, 2018 [9 favorites]

In addition to the advice you've gotten from others, I would add that when you decide to start driving on the highways again, you should first take some opportunities to practice without a lot riding on you being successful.

Choose a destination you're excited to go to, but that you don't *need* to go to, and that you can go to at a time when traffic is lighter without having to arrive on a deadline. A really great doughnut shop in Scarborough or something like that -- someplace you can drive to, spend as much time as you need to when you get there and then turn around and come home again.

Practicing in such a low pressure situation will be much less anxiety-inducing than when you have a passenger in the car (distraction) and you need to get that person to somewhere at a specific time (appointment). You can pick a nice sunny weekend afternoon and abandon the trip if it happens to be snowing in a way that you can't if you've got a commitment on the other end.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:26 AM on December 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

You need a driving instructor you feel good with to take you on the highway and routes you'll be doing in the less busy hours so you can get used to that part as much as possible before you have your parents with you and it's busier.

Some merges are worse than others, can you see if there are some that work better for you than others? I don't like winding down into a merge so I try to avoid those.

Agreed on the no caffeine, I used to drink it to make sure I was alert and I'd end up shaking with sweaty palms (I also have to drive in and around Toronto occasionally).

The situation has gotten worse in the GTA, but I try to trust in my defensive driving skills, being observant, trying to maintain safe distances, letting the speeders speed past and not worrying about them as much as I can.

I learned to drive as an adult in my 30's, the key for me was a kind good teacher and to be patient with myself, I don't have full blown panic attacks but I was quite nervous on the highway and still can be.
posted by lafemma at 10:29 AM on December 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

One thing I do, as a hyper-vigilant anxious person who's been in multiple terrible car accidents, that might help you, is to narrate out loud what I'm doing, and what I'm going to do. Where I live now, there's a highway that has stop lights: I'll say out loud, "stop, stop, stop, stop, go go go" when approaching the light so that I know whether I'm going to stop or go if the light changes, and not panic/dither and end up blowing through a red light. You could apply this to merges, too--"speed up, speed up, speed up, merge, slow down", etc. Something about saying this stuff out loud short-circuits my anxiety, maybe it will for yours, too?

I also always always always have an escape plan. If this merge fails--that's ok, the shoulder is clear and I can pull over. If someone tries to come in my lane, that's ok, the lane next to me is open and I can move over. If this person in front of me slams on their brakes, that's ok, I'm pretty far back and can brake and switch lanes. You can say this part out loud, too :)
posted by stellaluna at 10:38 AM on December 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

- Get your eyesight checked. You might have an astigmatism that makes judging distances very hard. Knowing this will help you manage your driving and your anxiety.

- Drive a bigger car with good visibility.

- Plan to trips around traffic patterns. Example: It’s easier to merge when traffic is heavier because everyone is driving slower, IMHO.

- Throw on your hazards if you feel like a car is dangerously tailgating you.
posted by jbenben at 10:46 AM on December 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

I’m on the GTA roads for far too many hours lately (and I have been driving here for 25 years so I hear you on the changes). I would recommend practising Sunday mornings going up the 404. It is one of the quieter roads (and has the HOV lane for speeders) and it would give you good practice to go up to The Wick and back. The merging lanes tend to be a reasonable length because it is a newer highway. Get off at the exits past Markham/Richmond Hill for the easiest ramps to exit/enter the highway. If you find your drive is too overwhelming, Woodbine Ave runs parallel almost all the way down so you can take that as an alternative, slower route. Good luck!
posted by saucysault at 10:52 AM on December 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Which points are you going from and to? Some exits are easier than others so pick your merge point (for example, if I have to get on the 401 westbound at Morningside I hate it because of the twisty ramp but if I drive a bit east and get on at Port Union it goes more easily, also there's less of a bottleneck that early.) Practice from those points on weekends so you're confident in all your lines of sight.

It is a nightmare but you can do this!
posted by warriorqueen at 11:39 AM on December 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

I live on the East Coast and 95 totally damages my calm, and 15 too. I choose to drive like a slow grandma, so that helps. As does visualizing merging as a zipper being zipped up and each of the cars are teeth of the zipper. It makes me feel like there is a logical space and place for each of us rather than two cars trying to occupy the same space.
posted by coevals at 11:45 AM on December 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

I found that a blind spot mirror helped somewhat with my merging anxiety.
posted by crone islander at 2:01 PM on December 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh this is so me! I hate merging, and only got my license as a 32 year old. I'm a slightly nervy driver that's not ever going to change, but I remember reading somewhere, maybe even here, that someone said of their anxiety "I'm allowed to feel anxious, I'm not allowed to let my fear change my behaviour." - and I've tried to adopt that principle with my driving.

Before I go:
- I look at the route in google maps, and get a rough idea of where I'm going, if there are going to be any potentially stressful points, so I can kinda "gird my loins" for them. If there's a particularly bad part I may plan the route to avoid this, but I try to avoid doing so as I don't want to enable my fears!

- Paradoxically, I find heavy traffic is almost as good as no traffic, because everything is moving so slow, there's plenty of time to react, so I'll look at what time my trip is and mentally prepare accordingly.

- I remember that no one really wants to crash their car, they may be aggressive, beep me, etc, but no on in their right mind wants to have an accident, so even total dickheads will generally apply the brakes or whatever

- I remind myself that most people are actually normal drivers (this is really helpful for me, cause I had like three negative merge experiences in a row when my license was new and it put the fear right into me!)

- The drive has literally never been as bad as I feared it would be. This is helping me grow in confidence.
- Those three negative merge experiences all happened on roads I travel regularly. So, I have made an effort to drive those routes more, so I can experience more normal happy merges at those particularly scary points (there was one in particular, essentially a double merge, I was really nervous about, I've done it maybe six times since, and it's been fine every time, which is really comforting!)

More generally, I'm honest with myself about m fear of driving, and that it's okay to be afraid, but actually I can do it. The emotion is not the action, if you know what I mean. Driving more is the most helpful thing. Best of luck.
posted by smoke at 2:51 PM on December 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

>most people are actually normal drivers

I find this highly debatable wrt drivers around here. If they’re not inebriated or distracted by phones, they’ve been infected with road rage as a result of horrific traffic (the consequent of decades of myopic planning by careerist, corrupt, and sometimes crack-addicted politicians. There is no bettering of things in sight, given the current provincial government, and the FOLKS who voted it in and likely will again). We also now have car jackings, although that’s just a point of information, not a focus of my panic. Which is really just about merging (city and 80km roads are fine, so is the highway once I’m on it).
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:34 PM on December 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

That is your anxiety talking. Think about how rare accidents on the roads are. Even if there's one accident on a particular road every single day, that means literally thousands of cars - even tens of thousands - are not crashing.

I understand the kind of fight-or-flight, hypervigilant mentality that can seize you when you get behind the wheel, I certainly do. But mentally painting every other driver as a deranged psycopath or inattentive fool is fueling your anxiety around this - and your anxiety is building up this inaccurate perception. Don't let the anxiety swamp the reality; roads are challenging, but >99.9% of people get to their destinations unharmed and on time, you'll be one of them.
posted by smoke at 3:54 PM on December 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

Smoke is right, not that it necessarily helps your anxiety too much because anxiety is not a rational thing. I log hundreds of highway miles in the Boston area (the city with the most accidents per mile in America, in a state whose drivers other New Englanders refer to as "Massholes") every single day and I can't even remember the last time I saw a near-miss at a merge. Yes, of course accidents happen—I see some kind of accident (mostly fender benders) at least once a day, but that's because there are just so freakin' many people out there on the roads.

If nothing else, merging seems to be the one time when people are actually paying attention. Nobody wants to hit you, believe me. They don't have time to deal with the hassle that would ensue. And in a merge, you have to actively drive rather than just tune out and cruise—so people do. Seriously, people make it work thousands of times per day at every single exit in my area and they almost never have an accident. I get that it's stressful but truly, it's your anxiety talking.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:31 PM on December 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

You might find it helpful to practice the most common routes with someone who is a) calm under pressure b) a confident, skilled driver.

Also you may find it helpful to study your route using google street view beforehand.
posted by oceano at 4:36 PM on December 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Can you practice some merges at night, somewhere out in the country, where you will encounter few other drivers? Perhaps reducing the amount of sensory input will help you, and you'll be able to get some confidence under your belt. Truly, merging in an urban area during the day requires processing a lot of information quite rapidly, but trust me when I say that with repetition it becomes second nature. Start out somewhere where all you have to process is like one or zero other drivers, and just do it over and over again. Like, get on the highway, get off the highway, then again in the other direction, just for one exit each time. Do it enough times that you get into the groove of it and it's no big deal. Then work up to busier places and times of day more gradually.

Practice with a variety of different types of interchanges but start with a nice simple diamond interchange, ideally one with just stop signs at the exits (rather than lights) if you can find one near enough. Diamond interchanges are easy, predictable, and extremely common. If you get cloverleaf interchanges in the GTA then be sure to practice some of those because they involve a lot of weaving which is kind of obnoxious and leads to traffic, but which you are gonna have to learn one way or another if you drive in metro areas.

Also, and this is crucial for me personally because I drive everywhere for work but have zero sense of direction, get a dash mount for your phone and just keep it locked on the Google Maps route for your destination, with the sound off so it doesn't get all insistent. Feel free to ignore its suggestions and don't worry about missing turns because it will just reroute you, but having a schematic preview of what your next turn looks like, including whether it's congested or not and (sometimes) an indicator telling you what lane you should be in at the turn, is invaluable. Especially for unfamiliar interchanges, but really just in general it helps you plan your next move. It's an automatic navigator, essentially—it reduces the amount of information you have to process and frees up more mental bandwidth for the actual driving, which is what's most important. I know it makes merges less stressful for me, that's for sure.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:22 PM on December 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

No simple suggestion, but you have my sympathy. Driving a vehicle in the GTA is a challenge.
posted by ovvl at 6:24 PM on December 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am also a GTA driver, and I just helped my grandmother tackle her driver's test (the one she needed to take because she turned 80). My thoughts:

- She took a targeted refresher course through Canadian Tire, specifically for elderly people re-doing their tests. Despite being a confident driver, she thought it was great and I think calmed her (very high) anxieties about the test. I do think that the better driving schools get this kind of request often (anxious drivers generally) and may be able to ameliorate some of your initial concerns regarding merging.
- Can you practice driving somewhere other than the GTA? I rent cars to go on weekend trips and practicing driving in more sedate and sane places as an incidental benefit has been calming for my driving generally. It is a lower level of difficulty to practice merging in, let's say, Kleinburg than the 401, and any bit of practice helps. The more cars you see, the more you will be able to predict them.
- I second (third?) the advice to manage your non-car stress. I was in a serious accident as a teen, and have known people in truly terrible accidents. When my car anxiety was worse, it helped me to make sure I had a good nights sleep the two nights beforehand, wasn't super over caffeinated, and wasn't stressed. I also didn't ever change the radio station. Now that I am more comfortable driving, I still would not drive if I felt actively bad but my level of tolerance is way up.
- On that note, the more you drive the better it will get. I had that bad accident and then basically didn't drive for years. I had a terrible time reintegrating into driving. Now I drive more regularly, but not frequently, and once that initial hump was over, it got a lot better. It just took some time.

I also would not rule out taking a Lyft when necessary. If there is a day you cannot face it, and your siblings will split the cost with you, they might not be prohibitively expensive.

Good luck!
posted by hepta at 6:46 PM on December 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

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