Driving anxiety is a psychological condition characterized by intense fear or anxiety about driving a car or being a passenger. It is a recognized condition that can significantly impact a person’s ability to drive or ride in a car.
Driving anxiety is a real condition, also called amaxophobia, and can manifest in many ways that impact a person’s social and work life.
Driving anxiety can be caused by several factors. It may include an injury from a past car accident, witnessing a car accident, or it can be related to underlying phobias.
It is possible to experience less anxiety with driving by incorporating breathing exercises and gradually increasing time in a vehicle.
What is driving anxiety?
Driving anxiety is the fear of driving or being a passenger in a vehicle. There are different severities of driving anxiety, ranging from general anxiety about driving to a phobia of being inside a vehicle.
Driving anxiety is a recognized condition and, in medical terms, is called amaxophobia. Studies note that the condition can negatively impact a person’s life due to the inability to get to and from work, social events, or appointments due to the fear of being inside a vehicle.
Driving phobia vs. driving anxiety
Driving anxiety refers to a general feeling of discomfort or apprehension related to driving or being a passenger in a vehicle. Fear can range from mild to severe, and some people can even experience panic attacks before driving or while driving. This condition can be triggered by specific situations, such as getting onto a highway, heavy traffic, or parallel parking, but it does not necessarily involve complete avoidance of driving.
On the other hand, driving phobia is an irrational fear of driving, being in a car, or even being around cars. People with driving phobia often experience overwhelming panic attacks or extreme anxiety when faced with the prospect of driving or being a passenger. This can be so overwhelming that people refuse to enter a vehicle — even as passengers.
Although driving anxiety encompasses a range of fears and discomfort, driving phobia refers explicitly to the extreme and debilitating fear that negatively impacts a person’s life.
It is difficult to determine how common driving anxiety is because most people do not report their fears. However, if you experience driving anxiety, you're not alone as one study notes that driving anxiety is a widespread disorder in modern society.
Different types of driving anxiety
The majority of people who experience driving anxiety fear one or more of the following:
- Passenger anxiety. A person with this type of anxiety always wants to be in control of the vehicle (driving) but does not like being a passenger.
- Parking anxiety. An uneasy feeling of parking in busy parking lots or parallel parking while others are around.
- Fear of public transportation. Someone may experience extreme fear of public transit but be ok driving independently.
- Highway anxiety. Some may be happy to drive on city roads but have a fear of driving on busy highways or double-lane roads.
- Nighttime driving. This is a common type of driving anxiety in which people do not like driving after dark.
- Fear of bridges or tunnels. Some drivers may dread crossing bridges or going through dark tunnels — even in daylight.
- Fear of driving alone. Some people may experience anxiety about being alone. They are generally worried that if something happens, they do not have the personal support of a familiar face.
What causes driving anxiety?
Several factors cause driving anxiety. For instance, people experience more anxiety than others due to their experience and personal history with anxiety.
- Past injury due to a motor vehicle accident (MVA). Sometimes people who used to be comfortable driving develop anxiety or phobia after an MVA. This can also manifest in those who have had a near-accident experience. This can be a normal reaction and generally takes time and proper therapy.
- Witnessing a car accident. Similarly, when someone witnesses a car accident, they can develop a fear of driving due to the thoughts of something happening to them or their loved ones. This, too, can be completely normal and managed with appropriate therapy.
- Underlying phobias. Some people with underlying phobias, such as a fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia), can be apprehensive about getting into a vehicle, so avoid it altogether.
- Lack of driving experience. In some cases, a lack of driving experience leads to anxiety. Being unsure about one's driving skills or unprepared to handle different driving situations can also contribute to anxiety.
- Modeling behavior. This can be developed very early on in life. It usually occurs when children overhear their parents or loved ones consistently discussing their fears of driving or being a passenger in a car, and it can cause driving anxiety as a teenager or adult.
Symptoms of driving anxiety
Driving anxiety can manifest in several ways and be different for each individual.
Some common symptoms of driving anxiety include the following:
- Quick, shallow breaths
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness in the chest
- Trembling or shaking
- Digestive issues
It is common for those with driving anxiety to experience different forms of driving anxiety symptoms. They can range from mild to severe; some people may even have a combination of symptoms or different levels of symptoms depending on the driving activity.
How do I know if I have driving anxiety?
Recognizing driving anxiety is an essential first step in the process of healing or overcoming the condition. Recognizing the symptoms of driving anxiety is the first step; people can do so by monitoring and being aware of their behavior.
Typical behaviors for those who may experience driving anxiety include:
- Avoidance. People with driving anxiety are prone to avoiding driving or being a passenger in a vehicle and often prefer not to go out at all.
- Preoccupation or worry. Those who experience driving anxiety will constantly worry about the driving aspect of an upcoming trip or specific driving situations. Some will overthink the chances of car accidents or visualize premonitionary accidents.
- Negative self-talk. Some people doubt themselves or worry and don't believe in their ability to drive. As a result, this negatively impacts their ability to drive and, therefore, increases their anxiety caused by driving.
- Hypervigilant or overcautious. This happens while driving when, for example, the person is constantly checking mirrors, never changing lanes, or driving under the speed limit, even in normal road conditions. This fear can be caused by driving anxiety or increase a person's driving anxiety.
How to manage driving anxiety
It’s essential to recognize the symptoms of driving anxiety, and it’s vital to seek proper psychotherapy to help better understand one's feelings and why they manifested in the first place.
Breathing exercises, such as deep breathing, can help stimulate a more relaxed state of being, allowing for less anxiety and better driving habits. Easily accessible mental health apps are now available on your phone. These apps can be used to improve mental health and are also very affordable.
Gradual progression into driving
Gradually increasing driving experience and time in a vehicle can be a great way to decrease anxiety. People can start as passengers while facing certain types of fears, such as driving on a highway, and slowly progress to driving on their own to face and overcome their fears.
Viewing images or videos of safe driving
Watching videos or movies of safe or casual driving techniques can decrease driving anxiety. Or for example, sitting on one's front porch and watching cars go by can also be beneficial. However, it's essential to focus on the fact that the drivers are driving safely and noting the sense of relaxation of the other drivers.
Virtual reality therapy
Although virtual reality is known for a gaming experience, this form of treatment is also used to effectively treat anxiety disorders, including driving anxiety. The theory is that by using virtual reality, the user can face their driving anxiety without the fear of risky situations and also can be paused/stopped immediately. A number of studies found that this treatment method is beneficial to also allow people to experience their fears slowly and over time in order to "master" the fear before moving on to the next stage.
Driving anxiety is a common condition that many people in North American experience. It is normal to have mild anxiety about driving in certain situations. However, if experiencing an irrational fear or anxiety, a person can implement deep breathing exercises or gradually progress into driving to help combat their driving anxiety. If you experience driving phobias and this impacts your life, it’s vital to seek psychotherapy to help with your symptoms.
- Applied Sciences. Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy for Driving Phobia Disorder (2): System Refinement and Verification.
- Disability and Rehabilitation. Psychological therapy using virtual reality for the treatment of driving phobia: a systematic review.
- Journal of Anxiety Disorders. Factors contributing to anxious driving behavior: The role of stress history and accident severity.