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Driving While Anxious: How to Learn Confidence Behind the Wheel

Jaime's a childcare professional with many years of experience, currently studying Information Systems Management at Wayne State University.

Driving for the first time can be nerve-wracking. With self-care tools in mind, you can combat driving anxiety and become a confident driver.

Driving for the first time can be nerve-wracking. With self-care tools in mind, you can combat driving anxiety and become a confident driver.

Five Tips for More Relaxed Driving

When I was learning how to drive, I would white knuckle the steering wheel. I constantly had racing thoughts about pedestrians, other cars, and all the what-ifs that come along with being a first-time driver. Though I am a confident and cautious driver these days, I remember how rough it was to learn to drive while suffering from anxiety.

With these five tips in mind, I hope new drivers can feel a little better about getting behind the wheel.

1. Remember to Breathe

Breathing exercises are a common coping strategy recommended for anxiety sufferers. Big “belly breaths” (called diaphragmatic breathing) has a soothing effect on your nervous system and can make you feel so much better when in a state of high anxiety. Diaphragmatic breathing can be a useful tool in your toolbox when learning to drive in uncomfortable situations.

Try utilizing diaphragmatic breathing after a stressful driving incident. Did someone follow you way too closely for the last few miles, making you feel nervous and unsafe? Did you get honked at by another driver for making a mistake? When your anxiety peaks in these heated moments, I know how uncomfortable it can be; they can make you almost want to give up on driving altogether. After an anxious situation, taking a deep belly breath will help you to regulate your brain and body and bring you back to a calm baseline.

2. Loosen Your Grip

We all know that your brain sends signals to your body, but did you know that the feedback can go the other way too? When you tense your muscles, your brain understands that you are in a stressful situation requiring more focus and adrenaline than usual. By keeping your hands tight on the wheel and white knuckling through every intersection, you are signaling back to your brain that you need to feel anxious right now. This creates an endless feedback loop of anxiety that doesn’t help when you’re learning to drive.

Try to mindfully relax your hands on the wheel occasionally when driving. Maybe every time you stop at an intersection, or after each successful turn. Don’t let go of the wheel, just make sure you aren’t holding on for dear life.

3. Take Frequent Breaks

When starting out, try not to drive for extended periods of time. It’s best to start with smaller driving sessions, then building up in increments of 10 or 15 minutes. For example, you might drive for 10 minutes one day, then 20 or 30 the next. When you’re in a high-stress situation, your brain signals the release of chemicals that increase your heart rate and blood pressure. These fight-or-flight chemicals can put your body through a tremendous amount of effort in a short period of time.

Taking breaks while driving gives your body a break from the stress of learning this new and challenging skill. Until a driving student’s anxiety subsides from adequate practice and experience, it’s wise to take breaks to lower the physical toll of driving anxiety on the student.

4. Talk Through Everything

When I was learning to drive, I found it enormously helpful to talk through everything I was doing in advance. When I was with my instructor, this gave them plenty of heads up of what I planned to do next so if I made a mistake it wouldn’t be a wheel-yanking one.

Giving an instructor this opportunity to correct a mistake before it happens keeps everyone in the car safer and better informed. Talking aloud also helped my anxiety when I was alone in the car, as it reinforced my self-image that I knew what I was doing and how to do it. This builds confidence and lessens anxiety over time.

Hey, if you managed to nail this as a kid, you'll be driving with the best of them in no time!

Hey, if you managed to nail this as a kid, you'll be driving with the best of them in no time!

5. Remember: Everyone's on the Same Team

Remember that as much as you don’t want to hit someone else’s car, they are just as keen on not hitting you with theirs. While it is safest to assume that other drivers are mistake-prone and inattentive, at the end of the day, you all share a common goal. Nobody wants to get hurt or damage one of their most expensive possessions.

As intimidating as sharing the road can be, remember that everyone is on the same team, everyone wants to get home safely. Not only that, but everyone was a new driver once and probably felt a lot of the same things you're feeling when on the road.

You Are Not Alone

Driving anxiety is common in new drivers. A scientist working for WebMD conducted a study of 190 people with driving fears, and found that 63% got easily upset while in a car. While driving fears are pervasive and can be harmful, they can be overcome with practice and good coping tools.

With a supportive instructor and enough determination, anyone can learn how to drive. Safe travels!

© 2020 Jaime Fitzgerald