Driving: I hates it! But it’s time to take the wheel again
April 18, 2019 8:59 AM   Subscribe

Driving! I very much disliked it. It made me sweat through all my clothes. I avoided it a lot. Haven’t done it in 9 years because no license in this country. But I’m finally getting back in the saddle. Coping tips?

I’m going back to driving school to get a local license, starting this Saturday! I’m looking for input about how to frame driving in my mind as not scary and how to calm down if driving feels overwhelming.
Maybe it will be fine, after all this time? I’m not sure. It’s possible it will be less anxiety inducing than boring.
Anyway, mainly looking for coping tips and reassurance from people who’ve been there (as someone put it recentlyish, “pats.” Pats please!)
Thank you!
posted by sacchan to Travel & Transportation (27 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
The pat/mantra I give myself: "Just keep it between the lines."
posted by nantucket at 9:03 AM on April 18

Something I think about sometimes is that when you're in the road in your car everyone else in the cars around you are doing a choreographed dance to stay out of each others' way. When I first started driving I thought of the rules I was learning very intellectually as a long list of things to remember and yeah it is very overwhelming and a lot to remember. Once I started thinking of it as a choreographed dance and the rules as the steps of the dance in effect this shifted the task from the newer, intellectual part of my brain which was ill-equipped to handle it to the somatic, body-control part of my brain which found it much easier.
posted by bleep at 9:06 AM on April 18 [7 favorites]

Beta blockers and experience. The more you do it, the less anxious it will be. It may never be Fine--I am still a very anxious driver compared to most and I have been known to take a Lyft somewhere to avoid having to park somewhere unfamiliar--but I manage my daily interstate commute fine now, in my late 30s, when I didn't drive ten years ago. I had some breathing exercises that I did, though I can't remember specifically what they were at this point, and then took it very slow.

The beta blockers get you past the heart palpitations and stuff to where you can at least still do it even when you feel anxious. Therapy for anxiety is a good idea, I'm still very in favor of that, but beta blockers very specifically will reduce the physical symptoms that are awkward to deal with while in the middle of driving.
posted by Sequence at 9:19 AM on April 18 [2 favorites]

If you are taking driving classes, the good news is the instructors are used to nervous drivers, if you are going out in their car first time remember they usually have foot controls etc & can help if something goes wrong, so it's not all on you, it's not all your problem, nothing bad is going to happen if the teacher is in the car with you if you just do as they say.

This will help you get your grove back as it were. I'm an anxious driver, I find knowing exactly where I'm going & having a clear path to get there all planned out helps me reduce stress, if there are areas or roads that give you extra stress avoid them. There is one turn on a road near me I will go blocks out of my way to avoid because the extra distance is not a stressor.
posted by wwax at 9:42 AM on April 18 [1 favorite]

Practice, practice, practice. Have lots of lessons.. as many as you need.
Don't be afraid to ask questions no matter how stupid they may seem.

Pretend you've never driven before, forget that anxiety you felt 9 years ago, clean the slate, turn over a new leaf and just go for it.

Anxiety and driving is so very common, the more you practice the better you will become.

I used to avoid parallel parking like the plague, it gave me significant anxiety when I couldn't find a parking spot that was acceptable to me. And you know what the secret was.... doing it, over and over and over and over again, and not worrying if I had to straighten the car again and again and again. I didn't care if people were frustrated or annoyed or laughing at me... that was their problem I figured.

The more you avoid something the worse it becomes and you know what? I love parallel parking now!
posted by JenThePro at 9:46 AM on April 18 [1 favorite]

Some changes since you last drove: a lot of cars now have backup cameras and a screen shows you what's behind you and warns you quite loudly if you're about to bump into something. Some even tell you if you're too close to something in front as you drive along. If you can afford to get a new car that has these things buy it, you'll feel safer.
posted by mareli at 9:53 AM on April 18 [3 favorites]

Sometimes when I get anxious getting through a crazy intersection or something, I just low-key scream in the car: Ahhhhh omg omg, ok, you can do this!!!!!

I’m totally ok with just talking myself through it, if that’s something that’ll help you.
posted by inevitability at 10:23 AM on April 18 [3 favorites]

I’ve been driving semi regularly for 3 years and regularly for about 1 and I still talk myself through scary stuff like uh, intersections and lane changes.

Regular driving is the ONLY thing that made it less scary. And it’s still not a relaxing experience.
posted by lydhre at 10:40 AM on April 18 [2 favorites]

I actually had hypnosis for this, which semi-helped, at least enough to get me driving. I'm still an anxious driver but it's just part of my routine now as opposed to turning me into a sweaty mess. You've got this!
posted by bighappyhairydog at 10:48 AM on April 18

As you mention being in a different country - based on the countries I have driven in every country has a different driving culture. There are also differences in average driving competence and road furniture and so on. I find driving in some countries more pleasant than in others. For example, a lot of last year I had to do regular longish drives between Switzerland and Germany. The former has perfectly maintained roads and rigorously enforced, lowish, speed limits, the latter has generally well maintained roads without or with loosely enforced speed limits. And a of people like to drive very fast and expect you to keep up or get out of the way. So I could feel myself relax when I crossed the border back into Switzerland.

So try to think of this as a skill you’re leaning for the first time and go from there. Because it will be very different. Learn some calming breathing techniques so you can get yourself into a calm frame of mind before lessons and during, if necessary. And don’t be afraid to explain to your instructor that you are terrified so they know to take it very easy until you build confidence.
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:58 AM on April 18

It's important to drive defensively, as you never truly know what the other drivers on the road are doing, but it can sometimes be comforting to think that they are all just as invested as you are in not getting into an accident. Even if you do something wrong, or foolish, or downright idiotic, there is a very good chance that the worst that will happen is that you will be honked at.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:13 AM on April 18 [2 favorites]

When I first started driving it helped if I mentally overreacted to poor drivers by unfairly comparing their inferior abilities to my own superior skills. “Wow, I can’t believe that guy just cut all of us off. What a jerk! I’m a MUCH better driver than that loser!”

You can also do that anytime you observe bad driving.
posted by Diskeater at 11:16 AM on April 18 [1 favorite]

You can absolutely do this!

Sit up and breathe slow and deep - slouching makes you breathe more shallowly and quickly, which increases anxiety. Depending on what car you have, you may need lumbar support. A lot of car seats are really terrible for your spine and force you into this weird cringing posture.

Spend all the time you need setting the seat height and the mirrors. You want to sit tall and know what's going on around you. Ask the instructor to get out and walk around the car so you know where the blind spots are. Practice checking your blind spots and learn to do it without tugging the steering wheel.

On that note: grip the steering wheel firmly, but gently. Getting tense is going to make the car feel like it's jerking when you turn or move to switch lanes.

Keep an eye out for pedestrians, motorcyclists, and bicyclists. There are rules for how they're all supposed to behave; pay attention to them so you know what to expect from them, but also give them plenty of space (especially cyclists) because sometimes they just don't do what they're supposed to.

Don't worry about keeping up with traffic. Let people pass you, leave plenty of room in front of you, and just do your thing. Contrary to how other people may behave, it's not a race. You're not even going to the same place, so who cares who's in front of whom?

Practice practice practice! All of the above can be practiced in an abandoned parking lot or empty roads. Look at online maps and figure out what roads or intersections you're nervous about, and practice them during off-hours. Practice at night, practice in the rain, practice following a map or GPS if you will need to use them. Practice every which way. When you've done something like it before, new things become much less scary.

You got this. :)
posted by Urban Winter at 12:20 PM on April 18 [1 favorite]

I'm another tense and unskilled driver -- no particular reason, just learned late and have mostly lived a non-driving life. Something that I find reassuring is that accidents mostly happen due to someone choosing to do something dumb: driving overly aggressively somehow, driving drunk, running a light, whatever, rather than just being bad at it. If you're generally behaving conservatively and sensibly, your odds of having something bad happen are really very low even if you're unskilled.

That, and everyone else on the road is a competent driver who's trying very hard to be safe just like you are.
posted by LizardBreath at 2:05 PM on April 18

If you have good night vision, practice in the wee hours when the roads are clear.
posted by aw jeez at 2:26 PM on April 18

US license to Italian license here, with a 15 year no driving break between the two.

My favorite coping mechanism is muttered copious swearing at other drivers with the windows rolled up. It sort of deflates my anxiety to a useful level where it makes me more hyper aware than OMGSOJITTERY.
posted by romakimmy at 2:32 PM on April 18

Stay off the gas and coast.
posted by oh posey at 4:57 PM on April 18

Make sure you can reach the pedals comfortably. That was my problem driving in my late teens/early 20s. I didn't realize exactly how much shorter my legs were than my parents' and brother's. I spent my first few years driving reaching my leg straight out for the pedals with the tip of my toe and not feeling like I had good control of the vehicle.

I sing, hum, or whistle when I'm nervous while driving, especially video game tunes. They're calming and focusing for me. My sister sings Super Mario when going through roundabouts.
posted by abeja bicicleta at 5:34 PM on April 18

+1 that if you can afford a newer luxury-type car with a whole lot of fancy safety features, it REALLY helps. 80% of my driving anxiety is around parking in tight spaces and keeping my lane on the freeway and my '19 XC90 helps me a ton with both of those things. The 360 degree camera in particular is a GAME CHANGER for parking lot navigation - my husband has actually complained that it makes parking "too easy, like a video game." I park in a lot that is valeted very tightly some days and was routinely crying trying to get my car out of the space before I got this one. Now I feel like a pro at parking all the time...'cause I'm cheating.

It ain't cheap but it's made me a much happier and more confident driver. And despite the car's large footprint I haven't gotten a scrape on it yet - because it beeps like crazy at me when I try ;)
posted by potrzebie at 6:14 PM on April 18

For me, music is essential. It takes the edge off enough that I am not "AAAAAAA" the whole time, but only "aaaaaa". When I get lost and start wondering what will happen if I _never_ find the airport, I actually sing.

For the record, though, I found driving a lot easier in a place with good drivers. In Los Angeles, I could be confident that everyone else could avoid me if I did something stupid or weird. In Honolulu...well, I haven't driven since we moved back, because I am terrified at the things I see on the road. ^^;

I also carefully plan routes in advance, and give them a mental weighting. An unprotected left is downgraded, having to change lanes is way downgraded, and a merge with a terrible abrupt entrance is right out. I can't deal with any GPS talking to me, but if I could program one for a "LadyOscar Score" for different routes, I'd consider it.
posted by LadyOscar at 8:22 PM on April 18

Adding to the chorus of “doing it regularly makes it less scary.” I avoided driving for over a decade, and then moved to Southern California where it is just a necessary part of life.

What helped me the most at first was to narrate out loud what I was doing as I drove. “Now I am going to merge to the left. There is another car quite close to me in that lane, so I’ll turn on my signal and wait for them to pass. Ok, now it looks clear. I’m going to check my blind spots and move over.”

This reminded me that I was a competent driver and was in control. It also prevented me from making mistakes due to my inexperience, so I felt safer.

I’m happy to report that a year later, I actually sometimes look forward to a nice long drive. You’ve got this!
posted by nancynickerson at 8:51 PM on April 18

Here's a review for a book that helped me at a time I was jittery about driving. It's available online. Something that helps keep my blood pressure down these days (I think I saw it at MetaFilter first) is the saying, "You aren't stuck in traffic, you are traffic." Remember that you're an integral part of this moving ribbon and that everyone has the same goal: to get safely to the destination.
posted by bryon at 9:55 PM on April 18 [1 favorite]

Vis a vis GPS and route planning, I have been known to Google streetview an entire route before heading off somewhere new; it familiarizes me with what the GPS will be saying and helps in case of badly posted signage.

I am also religious about keeping minimum safety distance between me and whoever is in front of me, both in motion and stopped.
posted by romakimmy at 11:37 PM on April 18 [1 favorite]

This may not be possible where you are, but what helped me get from being too anxious to take the test to passing first attempt was practice driving where there were very few other people and vehicles. Once I felt that I had got the hang of what I was doing, it was much easier to deal with other vehicles/cyclists/pedestrians. In retrospect, my anxiety was entirely focussed on potentially causing harm to other people or their property due to my ineptitude; once I felt that I was at least reasonably ok/on a par with other drivers I was far less anxious. Lots of practice obviously helped! I now actually genuinely enjoy driving when there's not much traffic.

If you can work out exactly what it is that causes the anxiety about driving - getting lost? Particular manouvres? Other drivers? or many other possibilities, then you can start to practice in an environment which minimises as far as possible those anxiety triggers. Then as your confidence builds, you drive in environments where there are progressively more of those triggers. It might take a while, but an approach like that should eventually mean you can face your driving nemesis, be that reverse parallel parking between two Bugatti Veyrons or that junction off the M8 in Glasgow that leaves off the wrong side of the motorway :)
posted by Vortisaur at 3:23 AM on April 19

The biggest modifiable contributor to my stress while driving is whether I'm in a rush. If I have plenty of extra time to get where I'm trying to go, park, etc, I can relax; if I miss the turn or I don't feel safe getting over to the lane I need, no big deal, I'll go around, I'll get there eventually. When I have to drive (which I try to minimize because it's still stressful), I try to always leave very ample time. That helps a lot.
posted by telegraph at 8:33 AM on April 19

I’ll update a little later after I get behind the wheel, but thank you so much for all the strategies and just letting me know how not alone I am in this. I feel the getting from “AAAAAA” to “aaaaaa” thing so hard.
Clean slate. New country. Much practice.
posted by sacchan at 6:14 PM on April 19

Hey, I just wanted to give an update. I graduated driving school and have a brand new license as of today. I learned that getting a license from scratch in Japan takes a *lot* more of a time commitment but you get plenty of instruction. I don’t think I’ll ever feel confident exactly, but I feel ready.
Japan’s speed limits are slower than what I had to deal with in the States, so that was a big help, while I do have to adjust to driving in narrower streets.
Driving on the left side of the road as opposed to the right was an adjustment but I’m very much used to it now and it’s not as much a problem as I anticipated. (Except I don’t ever want to drive in a right-side country now and get my wires crossed).
I can see myself just not driving now that I have my license (we only have the 1 car) so will try to drive somewhere at least 1x/week to keep it up.
Thank you all for your input! It was and is so helpful.
posted by sacchan at 8:26 PM on July 2

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