Overcoming Driving Anxiety

I’d sit in the driver’s seat of my dad’s old Honda, engine humming away as I idled in my driveway. I watched cars zip down the road seemingly at the speed of light; I was paralyzed. Wide-eyed, heart pounding, and hands shaking, sometimes I’d manage to loop around the neighborhood. But sometimes I’d turn the engine off and walk back into the house in defeat.

This is actually an eerily accurate representation of my mental state. When I took my driver’s test for the first time, I was so nervous I had trouble just starting the car.

I renewed my learner’s permit at least four times before I finally got my license at age 20.

While most of my high school friends were driving to school and the movie theatre no problem, I refused. 16 is far too young to be operating a motor vehicle, I rationalized to myself. What was I so afraid of?

I feared green lights because I couldn’t predict when they’d turn yellow. I feared left turns. I feared changing lanes. I feared merging onto highways (not to mention highways themselves). I feared driving above 25mph. I feared getting into a car accident, of course. I feared making decisions. I feared trusting myself.

I surfed the Internet and found forums of strangers to provide me with virtual I’m-not-the-only-one! support. In talking to people at my liberal arts college, I’ve found that driving anxiety is pretty prevalent here, too. (Social scientists, please conduct a study on the link between driving anxiety and liberal arts students. I’ve talked to too many people here for it not to be a thing.)

Now I have a car on campus and drive back and forth to Cumberland Valley school district every week. I’ve made the two and a half hour drive back home three times already. This past Fall I drove to Baltimore for the first time—a major moment of pride for me. If you had asked me whether I’d be able to drive to Baltimore a year ago, I would have guffawed in your face.

How did I get over it? Practice. This is the most annoying advice you can give to someone with driving anxiety, but it’s true. The only way to get over your fear is to push past it and practice. Start small–your driveway, your neighborhood, abandoned parking lots. Build your confidence and take baby steps.

Realizing this was a confidence issue also helped me. When you get in a plane, you’re placing all of your trust in your pilot. When you get in a car, you’re placing all of your trust in yourself. Realize that you are capable of making good judgments and trust your instincts.

Once I realized that making a mistake doesn’t necessarily mean getting into an accident, I felt much more relaxed. The stakes didn’t feel quite so high anymore.

I blasted music. I don’t advocate driving distracted, but this method worked for me. Because I have a tendency to overthink things and psyche myself out, music helped me relax and let my subconscious take over the wheel.

Now (dare I say it), I kind of like driving. For everyone out there suffering from driving anxiety, there’s hope!

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