I’m waiting at the traffic lights. My hands grip tightly onto the steering wheel. I feel fearful driving on unfamiliar roads.
My imagination is having a field day. What if I stall the car when the traffic lights change? I can’t face somebody beeping their horn at me. Am I in the right lane? It’ll be a nightmare to get over into the next lane. I’ll end up panicking and then I could crash. Oh God, my right leg is shaking with nerves…
The traffic lights change. Despite my shaking leg, I pull off and drive safely to the next set of lights.
I have suffered from fear of driving a lot. Driving has never come easy to me. It was my first driving test where out of the blue my shaking leg first occurred. Amazingly, I passed on my second test. But my shaking leg has often come back to haunt me. Although nowadays I’ve overcome my fear of driving to the extent that it’s a rare occurrence.
Fear of driving affects people in different situations. Some people fear driving on the motorway. Others find traffic in a big city overwhelming. Some drivers fear the simplest of journeys. For others it occurs when driving somewhere new or in an unfamiliar environment (such as in the snow or in a foreign country)
If you’re like me, you worry about looking stupid on the road. You fear the horns of other drivers. Or perhaps a road rage confrontation. Another cause of anxiety is fear of crashing and dying. Or loosing control of the car. Our imagination runs wild. It’s trying to keep us safe, but this isn’t good when it’s limiting our world too.
The good news is, like with any fear, there are ways to overcome it. Here are 10 top tips to ensure your fear of driving doesn’t stop you getting behind the wheel.
1.) Realise your fear is good.
In his book, Think Like a Monk, Jay Shetty tells us, “Fear isn’t bad; it’s simply a warning flag – your mind saying, ‘This doesn’t look good! Something might go wrong!’ It’s what we do with that signal that matters.”
Understanding this allows us to use our fear of driving as a force for good. Unlike fearless drivers who may drive too fast or glance at their phone, your fear is a signal which keeps you hyper alert. If fear is making you drive slowly and pay more attention, you are less likely to have an accident. Distraction causes 10 to 30% of accidents on UK roads. And the figures are similar wherever you are in the world. You may be nervous, but you are a better driver than you think!
Fear of driving is useful because it’s a motivator to drive safely. When your driving improves as a result of fear, your confidence behind the wheel increases. And driving confidence eliminates the fear altogether.
2.) Be a defensive driver.
Defensive driving is a style of driving that considers safety. Defensive drivers drive with a safety bubble around them and their vehicle. It helps you feel more confident on the road. Some examples of defensive driving include:
Leaving ample space between you and the car in front
Driving with consideration for the conditions (for example, if it’s raining or icy you slow down more than normal).
Anticipating what other drivers may do.
Google defensive driving to learn more. There are many videos and articles on the internet with more information.
3.) Take small steps.
Like all fears, exposure is one way to overcome it. Take small steps and exposure is easy!
You can take all kinds of tiny steps. If you’re not driving at all, start by sitting in the car and turn on the engine until that feels comfortable. When you first go out, try a brief journey with a supportive passenger. Or perhaps take the car to a parking lot (when it’s empty) and practice driving there.
Perhaps driving at night is the issue. Then a quick journey at dusk is a good place to start. Or if you don’t enjoy driving in unknown places, just drive along a road you’ve driven on before.
If motorways / highways are your bug bear, try the motorway when it’s going to be quiet. Go with a supportive friend for encouragement. Stick in the slow lane, don’t worry about going too slow – and enjoy driving in a straight line.
Another idea is to drive when it’s quiet. Drive down the same two or three roads until you feel comfortable. Take the same small step as many times as you need and repeat frequently. This builds your confidence until you feel ready to take the next tiny step.
The important thing when taking small steps is not to force it. The aim is to learn to enjoy driving. Reward yourself after every step that you take. And enjoy accomplishing something. Don’t beat yourself up for not getting where you want to be as quickly as you’d like. Take your time. Remember, enjoyment is the aim!
4.) Take more driving lessons.
You can take extra driving lessons for all kinds of reasons. You can take lessons to go on the motorway. And you can also do an advanced driving test. Lessons will build your confidence. Look for an experienced driving instructor who is sympathetic to your needs. Going out with a supportive instructor helps in all kinds of situations. Lessons will make you a safer driver. And they reduce your insurance premiums. A winner all round.
5.) Prime your mind and body.
Enjoyment is the key when overcoming the fear of driving. As previously said, learn to enjoy being behind the wheel.
To achieve this, there are many mind and body techniques to try. Some are simple, like ensuring you’re well rested when you drive and avoid caffeine (it exacerbates nervous energy). Exercise also helps with nerves. If you have time before getting into the car, try a short walk. Mother Nature’s remedies are magical. Walking and other exercise dissipate nervous energy.
Your internal mind chatter is your biggest obstacle on the road. Try changing your mindset with positive affirmations and self talk.
A technique I used to change my mindset is to repeat a mantra to myself. Repeating “I am a capable driver” makes me feel just that. Another one, taken from Susan Jeffer’s book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, is “I can handle it.” Whatever situation that arises on the road, you can handle.
Breathing is another fantastic method to have in your fear fighting tool kit. Take time to breath slowly. Focus on your breath and slow it down. Breath in slowly for 4, hold your breath for 4 and then breath out slowly for 4. Repeat to keep calm.
Preparation is another tool to use when driving scares you. If drive a new route, examine the route before you set off so you know where you are going and are less likely to make mistakes. Preparing for eventualities that may arise increases confidence. Having said this, there is a fine between planning a journey and obsessing about it. If you start compulsively worrying about how to handle the bridge or the highway exit, stop and do something else for a while.
Google maps are great for preparation as well as using as an aid while driving. If you take a wrong turning, it reroutes quickly so you don’t have to worry too much about making mistakes. It tells you which lane you need to be in, so you get in the right lane plenty of time in advance.
7.) Challenge your thoughts.
Your mind is excellent at thinking thoughts that keep you safe. It creates all kinds of scenarios that make you avoid doing things to keep you away from danger. However, this doesn’t always work well in today’s modern world.
Once I took a job that involved driving a new 40 minute route, with part of it on a motorway. Every day I drove that route, I tortured myself with terrifying thoughts. My mind imagined crashing at speed on the motorway. I thought about angry drivers beeping at me if I got in the wrong lane. Or perhaps, I would get eternally stuck turning right as no driver would let me in front of them in the busy traffic.
None of these scenarios occurred. What a waste of energy! Every single day I stressed myself out. And for what?!
If I’d have challenged my thoughts, it would have helped me realise how little truth they contain.
Let’s challenge my thought of crashing on the motorway / highway – which is common. In fact, motorways are the safest roads in the UK. Everybody is travelling in the same direction, which makes it a lot safer than other roads.
Another common fear to challenge is annoying other drivers on the road. I used to worry drivers get annoyed because I’m driving too slowly (which is often just the speed limit). However, whereas this may be the truth in some situations, why do I assume that this is always the case? Maybe the driver following me is pleased that somebody is driving the speed limit. They may have lost a pet or family member from speeding. Maybe they are not even thinking about how I am driving.
I realise I may annoy some people, and often they let you know, but I reframe this too. I’m doing them a favour if they drive behind me because I’m slowing them down, which makes the road safer for them, me and everyone else. And who cares what they think? It’s their problem if they other drivers annoy them. Leave them to it!
8.) Talk to yourself when driving.
One technique that helps is to talk to yourself out loud about each step you take. So if you are approaching a roundabout you might say “I’m slowing down on approach to the roundabout”, next “I’m taking a left turn” You can also say things out loud that other drivers are doing and what’s happening on thhe surrounding road. For example, “This driver wants to get into the lane in front of me” and “there’s a cyclist on the road ahead”.
Talking to yourself sounds mad, but drivers do this on advanced driving tests so it’s an excellent technique for better drivers. It ensures you are aware of what is going on around you, so make the best choices behind the wheel.
9.) Acceptance and commitment therapy.
Have you heard the phrase “What you resist, persists”? If you resist a feeling, it grows. This sentiment applies to fear. If you are trying to get rid of a fear, you can end up focusing on it, which makes it worse.
Many people get over feelings of anxiety and fear when driving by using acceptance and commitment therapy. This involves accepting thoughts and feelings but you simply observe them instead of buying into them. They can float by without giving them any power. There are books and websites where you can learn about this therapy.
It sounds counterproductive, but accepting your anxious feelings about driving helps. Accepting anxious feelings arise but that you have strategies such as breathing and mindfulness to deal with them makes it easier to face scary situations. And gradual exposure to situations that make you feel uncomfortable will slowly build up your confidence until they are just not frightening anymore.
Just the act of accepting a feeling means it no longer has the same power over you. And often just acknowledging it makes it disappear altogether.
10.) Realise you are not alone.
If you search on google, forum and Reddit on overcoming driving anxiety, you find out many people have anxiety when driving.
How does this help?
It shows that this kind of fear is normal, which makes it easier to reach out to friends, family and driving instructors for help. Online, there’s lots of advice, tips and delightful stories from people who overcame their fear of driving. Try methods that have worked for other people and see if they work for you too.
As with getting over any kind of fear, I believe there is not a one size fits all approach. I learned on Reddit, some people built their driving confidence by taking part in a driving experience day on a race track. Not for me, but obviously it works for others.
Some nervous drivers relied on friends and family in the passenger seat being their support. Another person on Reddit recommends having an inspirational driver to motivate you. This inspiration is the 80 year old uncle who’s still driving slowly and not caring what other people think. Or it might be the friend who’s nervous about driving but still does it. If they get out on the road and drive, you can too.
Start taking small steps to overcome driving anxiety. Don’t let this fear stop you from living a full life. Many people have overcome this fear, one small step at a time. And you can too.
In the words of a former nervous driver. “I overcame my fear of driving and it was the best thing I’ve ever done”.
Make that your story. Good luck.