Driving. Windows rolled down, breeze blowing my hair, perfect music on the radio (80s hair band genre, preferably) and maybe a destination in mind. I used to yearn for moments to take a drive.
That was absolute perfection for me, until one day it just wasn’t. One day, driving anxiety became stronger than my desire to drive.
Driving used to be enjoyable to me. Being able to drive was one of my first tastes of the freedom of adulthood. It was a break from routine, a chance to unwind or a chance to catch up with a friend. It was how I prepared myself for work in the morning and decompressed from the day since I’ve always had a 45-minute drive to work. Yet somewhere between having my kids and today, I completely lost the desire to drive.
I’m not entirely sure when the switch actually flipped between enjoying driving and being afraid of it. I do know, however, that it’s one part anxiety which I never had experienced until late 2007, and one part becoming a parent in 2011. In 2007, I experienced my first panic attack.
My first panic attack came shortly after my now husband and I first moved in together. I was up late by myself eating a bowl of pasta, lying down (yup, mom always said don’t lie down when eating) on the couch and I choked. Turns out, the food never fully restricted my airway, but the entire experience impacted me just enough that I panicked. We visited the ER so I could be assured that nothing remained in my throat because in my mind, even though I was talking and breathing fine, there was still something there.
I was fine the next day and honestly didn’t have another panic attack until about a month later. I can’t tell you what brought it on, but all of a sudden, I connected eating with not breathing, and I became very fearful to eat. I scared plenty of people with how rapidly I was losing weight because of this fear (I’m fairly certain I lived on Ensure during that time). I’m much better with eating now, and honestly, it took time, but I always made sure I ate something, even if I had to puree it first!
Truthfully, I never had any form of driving anxiety until this experience with choking.
I was adventurous, fun loving, and excited to find new destinations and explore the world. Now I’m reserved, nervous, and scared of the unknown. This one moment changed me in a way I never would have expected. It created my “new norm” that I’m still trying to maneuver through to this day.
While driving anxiety is a constant presence in my life, it is really only brushing the surface of the anxiety I experience daily, and it greatly impacts our family
In 2011, I became a mom. Once I had our oldest child, even entering the car started to scare me. I was so scared of something happening that would hurt them or me.
You can do everything right, and have complete control of your vehicle, but you can’t control other people.
You can’t control if someone spent an entire day at the bar, chose to drive the five miles home and crosses the road into your lane. You can’t control that driver that just finished up a twelve-hour shift and is driving home exhausted and falls asleep. You also can’t refuse to ever get into a car because of the fear.
One thing I know for certain is that driving anxiety is incredibly common and that it can randomly develop at any age. My first brush of anxiety was at the age of 22, and prior to that, I had no signs of anxiety ever. To this day, my anxiety comes and goes, and sometimes anxiety over new issues pops up as the old anxieties disappear. I’ve met other people who didn’t experience anxiety until later in life too. Anxiety can be triggered by situations like loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or really something as simple as a minor car accident or household accident. It just takes one moment of fear, and anxiety can blossom.
Not only am I afraid of other drivers, but my driving anxiety also encompasses my fear of driving alone.
Among other things, I’m worried that something might happen and no one would be there to help. What if I’m alone and I fall asleep? And this fear gets even stronger if I’m driving with my children. Because as with most moms (parents really), my children are everything to me. They are my world and I could not imagine something happening to them. Sometimes the responsibility of driving them and potentially putting them at risk paralyzes me.
I don’t have a fear of going too fast, because I have complete control of my speed. I do, however, have a fear of losing control of my vehicle. My biggest fear is of having an accident that results in myself, my husband or my children getting hurt (or worse). This is such a big fear for me that even typing the words causes anxiety. The fear of death (there, I said it). It’s ultimately the root cause of all my anxiety, that one single fear, so it only makes sense that its the biggest factor in my driving anxiety.
I’ve had days where I forget that I have these fears. Other days, the fear becomes so paralyzing that I can’t even bring myself to sit in the driver’s seat. Regardless of how rational or justified it is, it’s something that I can’t push through anymore. I’m so scared that my driving anxiety is going to push me to not be able to drive at all.
Living in the country, I have to push through my terror of driving almost daily. I don’t have to drive to work every day since my husband and I work together, and I’m fine driving from our house to the grocery store or school. However, in those moments when I have to venture out of my small radius of comfort or onto the highway, I’m instantly filled with driving anxiety and feel frozen in place. And for some strange reason, as I have aged, I find I get tired easily when driving. This only adds to my fears. Consider our winter weather (which, by the way, I used to enjoy driving in), and all of my driving anxiety amplifies.
I know the driving anxiety boils down to one more thing for me. I’m scared of missing out on my children’s lives. But that fear consumes me so much that I find I’m just existing, not really living or enjoying life when driving becomes an issue. For example, on a day that I have to drive the 45 minutes to work by myself, I’ve already spent the 3-4 days leading up to that morning anxious and worried about the drive. That’s 3-4 days that I just existed because the driving anxiety consumed me before the drive even happened.
Even harder than pushing through my fear almost daily is ensuring that my fear of driving doesn’t impact my children. That they don’t feel the anxiety that I have. That they don’t have the same fears as they grow older. I refuse to let my terror influence their achievements.
What I am certain of more than anything, is that I want to overcome this fear. I miss the desire I once had to drive. I’m envious of other moms who take day trips or long weekend trips with their kids and do the driving all by themselves. I want to want to drive my kids places without anxiety. I want to create those memories for them, just like the memories I had as a kid. Being scared to drive makes me feel like I am missing out, and like I am an inferior parent.
As I write this and relive these moments, I can pinpoint when my life changed. And what drives every bit of my anxiety is the fear of death. The fear of not seeing my kids grow up. The fear of not experiencing every moment I look forward to.
The ironic thing is, my fear of living an anxiety driven life can actually increase my daily anxiety. I can go months without experiencing any anxiety, and then have several bouts of it within a week’s time. What I have learned though are techniques to get me through the panicky moments. For example, I’m a clock watcher. So, if I have any driving anxiety, I will watch the clock typically knowing how long my trip is going to take and how much time is left. Or if I have a food driven anxiety issue, I watch the clock for the 30-minute mark. And my most common coping method is to talk myself through the panic. I’m aware that some like to be left alone and keep their fears to themselves. But I’m not embarrassed about my anxiety, and I don’t feel that keeping it contained helps me. So, I choose to talk through it (which means if I’ve talked through it with you, I must feel really comfortable around you).
I’m not here to diagnose you or to help you get over your driving anxiety if you suffer like me, or any other anxiety for that matter. I am here to tell you there are ways to approach it that can help. It won’t always solve the situation, and sometimes further intervention is needed, but it might just alleviate it enough so you can breathe. To know that you aren’t alone with driving anxiety, and to know that you aren’t alone knowing sometimes that driving anxiety was not the result of anything to do with driving at all.
What I aim to gain from sharing my story and my fears is to let anyone who has similar fears know that they aren’t alone. That it is ok to feel that way. That is it ok to have to take it day by day. That it is ok to wish you didn’t feel that way. That it’s ok to have driving anxiety for reasons completely different than mine. And that those different reasons are not any less significant than mine.
Yesterday was a bad day for driving anxiety. Today was a good day. When I put it into perspective and take it day by day, it’s a little less scary. I vow that I will not let driving anxiety define me. I vow that I will not let it paralyze me to the point that I don’t drive. I vow that I will continue to face this fear and prevent it from taking away joy from my life.