Highway Driving Makes Me Panic
July 31, 2008 8:57 PM   Subscribe

Highway driving wigs me out and it has gotten worse. Very different from local driving -- streets, secondary roads, etc. -- which are fine. What is going on?

I have been dealing with this for quite some time. Once I get on highways or interstates, parkways, everything seems to move very quickly for me and I fear I am going to panic, faint or otherwise make a quick mistake that will cause me to crash. It is especially a problem with others in the car.

Local streets are not a problem because things move more slowly. In the past I have bored down and get the trip done without incident, but lately things have gotten worse and I am now avoiding fast moving highway traffic altogether.

Needless to say, it is frustrating and I have not shared this with anyone else beyond this post. I did have a close call many years ago when the axle on my car cracked and a near-accident occurred but the problem has been life-long. I grew up in the city and long-range, open-road driving has always made me fearful since I got my license. I am in my 40s. Have you heard of this before. What are your suggestings?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak for anybody else, but I am nervous every time I drive on the freeway and I am a very confident driver. I think an important thing to remember is that you don't have to keep up with everybody else. You might stay in the slower lane (non-passing) and go at your own pace - leaving enough room for braking is a big thing for me.

It is important that you don't go too slow, because that could be unsafe, too. If you are not comfortable going within a couple of miles of the speed limit, perhaps highways are not for you and maybe you could stick to frontage roads.

Just breathe. You want to be as relaxed as possible while remaining alert. Being skiddish is not going to help you focus.
posted by jeffrygardner at 9:25 PM on July 31, 2008

This totally happened to me.

Do you have a history of panic attacks? I did, and during that time, I did not drive. During this time I lived in a city, and I think I was on a highway like, twice. Also did daily public transit where I don't think I ever got about 30. When I started driving again, I would panic on highways, and in very long tunnels. It was TERRIBLE. I would shake, and I couldn't stop fidgeting and sweating, I would have to pull over, or into a neighborhood that I was familiar with (the local streets that you reference above).

Do you experience this only when driving, or also riding as a passenger? I was fine while riding as a passenger. Unlike you, however, I felt better when I had passengers, because I felt that even if I passed out or crashed or something terrible happened, they could grab the wheel, or smack me awake, or something. I was much more scared to be alone. And most people I know know about my history of anxiety, because many of them have had issues as well. I told them straight up that I'm afraid to drive, so not to mind me going slow, or whatever. Kind of made a joke about it, but they knew I was serious. Having someone in the car to talk to also provides a distraction from your anxiety.

A few things that I did:

Look more ahead, more into the distance. If you get caught up on the whirring road underneath you, it intensifies your feeling of movement. Also, it helped me to not turn on my cruise control, I needed to know that my foot was on the brake and I was the one controlling my speed.

started a new anti-depressant for anxiety. I wasn't taking anything for years, then I started (effexor) in a very low dose.

Had a prescription for Xanax with me at all times, and could pull over and take a miniscule amount when panicking

Minimized coffee intake the morning that I knew I was driving on a highway

Did not drink alcohol the night before I knew I was driving

Got an Ipod, and filled it with both music, podcast, and how-to's (language instruction). If I was getting too used to the music and ignoring it, I could switch to the language instruction to provide a slight distraction from dwelling on the panic.

Therapy, where my therapist would ask me where I had driven the week before. It was embarrassing to actually tell someone that I avoided going places because of the driving thing. Maybe not a therapist, but telling someone about your problem may help.

The good news is that I'm over it. Mostly. The bad news is that it took me almost 2 years to get over it to where I feel mostly normal, and I'm still not planning any road trips. I often also consolidate my errands, because of a combination of hating driving, but mostly because parking on my street is impossible :). So there's THAT. BUT, I also don't really have a reason to drive daily, or even weekly sometimes. You would probably get over it more quickly than I did if you are driving more frequently. I noticed that when I WAS driving daily, years ago, I was perfectly fine.

Don't worry, you can get over this. Best wishes, I'm feeling ya ;)
posted by BlackStrapMolasses at 9:35 PM on July 31, 2008

the big thing about highway driving is going with the flow. when you enter a highway remember you are entering a fluid flow. enter calmly and assertively. people have already seen you and know you are coming in. use your indicators. use them ahead of time to give advance warning. once you are in the flow give yourself plenty of time to know when you want to get off. signal early, and ignore the wankers who are speeding in the lane you want to be in, sooner rather than later there will be somone who will let you in and let you get to where you want to be.
posted by Frasermoo at 9:36 PM on July 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

not sure I advocate the drug use mentioned above.
posted by Frasermoo at 9:49 PM on July 31, 2008

Plenty of people choose not to drive, even for no reason in particular.
posted by salvia at 9:53 PM on July 31, 2008

Perhaps you could stay up late one night and try driving fast along a more or less deserted stretch of late night highway? Then, work your way up to driving on more congested roads. In addition, I know that in my area (Texas) some roads slowly turn from neighborhood roads with 40 MPH speed limits to 55 MPH country mini-highways. Maybe try one of those, if you can find one, working your way up to higher speeds? They look essentially the same, but you can ease into going faster. They also tend to be fairly non-congested.
posted by MadamM at 10:13 PM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

I feel your pain. I can drive on two-lane, one-lane, dirt roads with no anxiety whatsoever. But put me on the freeway and I freak. I don't like cars behind me, beside me, or in front of me. If I can get someone else to drive, I do it. I have a trip I have to make from Georgia to WV and I just cannot bring myself to drive it by myself. I'm taking the bus. What I'm trying to say is, you're not alone. Some of us are just not equipped for that kind of driving.
posted by wv kay in ga at 10:19 PM on July 31, 2008

Here's a thread from last year on the topic. I'll say what I said in the earlier thread; if you don't feel comfortable driving on the interstate then please don't. The ramifications of a crash go beyond your own well-being.

Perhaps if you could improve your driving skills (some course were mentioned in the earlier thread) it would increase your confidence in your ability and reduce the danger to others.
posted by Jeff Howard at 11:54 PM on July 31, 2008

I went through a phase with this problem. As others will probably tell you, avoidance is an excellent way to reinforce fears. The best thing to do is to drive on the highway, drive on the highway, drive on the highway.

I had to get over it in order to take a job forty five minutes down the interstate. I had a few weeks of really unpleasant commuting, but I got over it. A couple things that helped: I drove to the destination a few times early in the morning on a weekend with my boyfriend so I wasn't totally unfamiliar with the territory. Knowing the directions by heart really helped. Secondly, I focused on rote skills. Want to move into the left lane? Check your mirror, check your blind spot, turn on the turn signal, check your mirror, check your blind spot, move into the lane. I was too panicky to just do it automatically, so I had to kind of consciously say to myself: "If you do this properly, it is unlikely you will be killed."

Also, don't let others freak you out into driving faster than you want. Some people will drive ninety, but you don't have to. You can drive seventy and stay in a slow lane, concentrate on breathing and form (reassuring yourself you're in a lane and staying there, other people can see you, keep checking your mirrors periodically so you're aware of the whereabouts of others. As much as it feels like anarchy, it isn't.)
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:34 AM on August 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have had this fear for years. The trigger incident was having my brakes go. Fortunately it was on a quiet road in the suburbs while I was only going about 20 mph. I could stop but I had to pump with all of my strength. All I could think of was "What if this had happened on the highway?"

The brakes were fixed and the car was fine again, but it was a really old car. In hindsight I don't think I ever really trusted it after that, but the result was that I was afraid to drive on the highway. I avoided highway driving to the point of taking extra long routes around it or taking the train for interstate travel.

Then I started taking courses at a college about 45 min. away with a 3 lane highway as the only sensible way to get there. I had a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel for about a month of daily driving and then got used to it. Now, two years later, I don't have any anxiety during the drive except momentarily when merging onto the highway.

The 4 things that helped me were:

- Mastering a 3-laner first because there are less lanes to keep track of so it's less intimidating
- Just forcing myself to do it regularly. Nthing the post about avoidance making it worse.
- Continually reminding myself that it usually takes two people to make an accident - one to make a momentary mistake and another to fail to notice and react in time. So the odds of both things happening simultaneously are actually pretty slim.
- Getting a new car. It sounds like you are not still driving the original axle-crack car. If you are, you might be afraid that it will happen again.
posted by eeyore at 6:07 AM on August 1, 2008

A recent slew of random car problems (due to faulty parts and chance in my 2004 Civic) has left me with mild anxiety with regard to driving far from my home. So I'm fine driving around my suburb, but trips to Cleveland or farther to Chicago or Cincinnati fill me with dread.

One way I'm trying to overcome this driving-related anxiety is by forcing myself to drive for longer distances to prove that my car is fine and not about to break down (for the seventh time).
posted by vkxmai at 7:09 AM on August 1, 2008

I had a similar experience as BlackStrapMolasses. I was struggling with general anxiety and began to feel very anxious during my 45 minute drive to work in the morning and in the afternoon. I had never had any kind of accident before but over a short period of time found myself white-knuckling it during the entire drive.

When this became a serious problem, I decided to take action. I saw my doctor who put me on an anti-depressant. I started seeing a therapist for my fear of flying anxiety. I started reading about panic attacks and how to get through them - Don't Panic by Reid Wilson is a good book. Within a month, I was back to normal driving again. Since then I have brief flashbacks, but it's usually when I am in an unfamiliar area or feeling anxious or stressed in general (I am no longer on the anti-depressant).

I also have to back up BlackStrapMolasses's suggestion for using the language tapes to help you focus while driving. I also used this to help me and learned something along the way!

I do have to disagree with the idea of taking a xanax while driving, though. I was prescribed the smallest dose you can get for my airline anxiety and it will fatigue you and slow down your perception skills. A better idea would be to cut out any caffeine.
posted by bristolcat at 7:44 AM on August 1, 2008

Is it possible that there's something wrong with your car? A loose suspension part will make the car feel very out of control at faster speeds, but may not feel "broken" to the driver.
posted by gjc at 7:51 AM on August 1, 2008

Know that you are not going to panic, nor lose control. Breathe evenly and well. Practice driving on the highway, as others have suggested. When you're on the highway, concentrate on the place you are going to, wherever it is you want to go. Concentrate on the pleasantness of this place. I wonder why is it worse when someone else is in the car? Search your heart and mind - is there actually something else going on in your life you're not facing? Usually people project these things onto things, when they want to avoid them.
posted by Penelope at 8:21 AM on August 1, 2008

Yeah, highway driving is scary. It was especially bad for me once I started driving again after a couple of accidents I was in, but definitely got much better after more exposure-- I still find it scary, but not miserably so anymore. (I can't tell how often you do it, if you're already driving pretty often, then that might not be helpful to you.)

Mostly I just try to avoid the scariest parts of it and make it as much "driving fast in a straight line" as possible-- I never pass slow cars unless I feel totally comfortable with it (I once spent miles trailing an ice cream truck going 20 under the speed limit because there were too many cars in the next lane for me to feel safe passing!)-- I move to the middle lane if there is one (so I don't have to deal with cars merging in)-- I move to the left if there's no shoulder on the right due to construction or something because that freaks me out-- if I've made a mistake and am at risk of missing my exit without difficult maneuvers, I'll often just wait for the next exit and turn around. So then there's very little to worry about except keeping an eye on the cars around me, which means I'm better prepared to react if there's a problem.

Also, a lot of my highway driving is with my boyfriend along and I find it extremely comforting to have him help me merge/pass/otherwise keep an eye out for other cars. You say it gets worse for you with passengers, I guess it depends on how comfortable you are with them, but I find that a simple "Is anyone coming up behind me? Am I good to switch lanes here?" and getting a "Yes, you're fine, plenty of room" dials down the anxiety a lot.
posted by EmilyClimbs at 8:23 AM on August 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Consider taking a race- or pursuit-driving course. Having experienced high-speed maneuvers in a safe environment and learned to avoid and recover from them might help you to be more confident in your ability to perform in less stressful situations.

In general people don't rise to the occasion, they sink to the level of their training. I'm constantly running scenarios in my head "what if he brakes, what if her wheel flies off, what if my wheel flies off" and figuring out what the best thing to do is. It works for me because often when something does happen I've already thought about it at some point and have a sort of cached response to look at and additionally it gives my brain something to do so it's not constantly second-guessing my subconscious driving choices.

Remember that your brain is a human riding a dog riding a lizard. The lizard knows how to move your body (and your surrogate, four-wheeled body) through space. The dog knows how to read the minds of those around you (that wheel twitch means he's changing lanes, better brake) and the human knows how to coordinate the two as well as high level planning and avoiding the existing bugs in the system (target fixation, overconfidence, inability to judge absolute speed, etc).

It's been said before but the two rules for driving are, in this order:
1) don't be surprised and
2) don't be surprising.
posted by Skorgu at 8:29 AM on August 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Motor vehicle accidents on highways were the leading cause of death for age groups 4-34, and the third leading cause for ages 35-44. I'd say your fear is rational. Just arrange your life so you don't have to drive on the highway.
posted by salvia at 8:53 AM on August 1, 2008

I'd say try to find the cause of the stress, is it fear for yourself, or for others.

Recent years, I've had a similar issue, I need to get off the freeway and onto side roads, usually due to an anxiety attack. Once the car has slowed-down on the other roads, I can focus more on myself, breathing, etc. Get back under control.

As someone else mentioned, the car does make a difference. Right now I'm driving a 93 beater Jeep Cherokee that I'm driving into the ground, got tired of car payments. It can be a challenge to keep it on the road at freeway speeds. Most of the time, I keep to the slow lane. But, it's a box.

Previous leased cars, particularly the 2000 Mustang GT I had, although they had the suspension of a horse-cart, was on a completely different level at freeway speeds, I had no fear of the fast lane. It was also the only car that got me speeding tickets, simply because it was smooth at faster than average (or legal) speeds.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 7:17 PM on August 1, 2008

Buy driving video games and play them in your spare time.

Make sure you get the realistic ones, and not the arcady ones.
posted by BeaverTerror at 10:34 PM on August 1, 2008

One other suggestion that I haven't seen mentioned, and just occurred to me, is going to a competent driving school. They're not just for teenagers. Be honest that freeway driving is making you nervous, and see if they can arrange someone to assist you to get over it.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 10:58 AM on August 2, 2008

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