Dealing with Driving Anxiety: My personal story, experiences, and how I got past it! Cars are a big part of my family. We own 7 cars, 4 of which are ‘classic’ cars that my dad collects. I grew up going to car shows every weekend: the smell of BBQ mixed with car exhaust and the sound of classic rock is my definition of Summer. When I was 16 years old I got my drivers permit. I was excited, I was hopeful, and I was ready to get on the road, prepared to take my driving lessons and take my drivers license test in 6th months as soon as I was allowed to.

Over a year later, and I still had not taken my drivers license test.

Through one experience of driving on the freeway with my father yelling at me the whole time, I discovered that I had developed freeway driving anxiety.

It didn’t matter who I was with, I would start shaking and tearing up the second I tried to merge onto the freeway. I couldn’t do it.

Eventually I got up the nerve to take my drivers license test, which did not require me driving on the freeway, and passed on the first try. For nearly an entire year after I got my license I did not drive on the freeway. I took back roads everywhere I went, which is difficult living so close to Los Angeles.

With cars being such an important part of my family, the fact that I had anxiety driving one made me feel like a failure.

There were many times where I would tell myself I was going to do it, I was going to drive on the freeway by myself and learn to cope. Every time I would end up pulled to the side of the road right before the freeway on ramp, crying and having a panic attack in my car.

It is now nearly 3 years since my first freeway driving anxiety attack, and I drive to work on the freeway every single day. I drive down to Los Angeles about every other weekend. I overcame it. And here’s what helped me:


Patience

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I think my biggest struggle through trying to cope with my driving anxiety was the fact that I was not patient with myself. I was frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t do something that billions of people can do easily every day, and I let it get to me. It took a long time, as well as following all of the other tips mentioned below, but with a lot of patience I was able to overcome my freeway driving anxiety.

I had to learn to be patient with myself: Just because I was struggling with this now does not mean I will struggle with it forever. I will do this. I can do this. I needed to believe in myself.

I had to learn to speak up for myself and tell others to be patient with me as well: I had to explain to my dad that something that came naturally for him over 45 years ago is still brand new and terrifying to me, but that doesn’t mean I’m incompetent and can’t do it.


Calming Distractions

As I practiced driving around town I slowly discovered that there are little things that I do in the car that help distract myself from my anxiety and calm me down. Everybody has little driving quirks, and mine is that I have to be listening to upbeat music and singing along, it helps me stay calm and anxiety free.

I’ve never really been a fan of pop or rap music, but when I’m driving that’s mostly what I listen to. The upbeat and positive top 40 songs in particular are my favorites, since they help keep my mood up and happy and don’t let me focus on my anxiety.

Another thing that I have noticed recently is that if I start to panic when I’m driving around town, not on the freeway, it helps if I roll all the windows in my car down halfway. I don’t know if its the fresh air, or the wind, but it helps clear my head and calm me down.


Just Do It


There were two major ‘tipping points’ to me finally being able to drive short distances on the freeway without having an anxiety attack.

The first, was the day that I got my current job. My parents had bought me my first car the day before and I had graduated from high school three days prior . I had been working up the nerve and preparing my mind all day for the fact that I was going to have to drive on the freeway by myself for 30 minutes to get to my new job. I was ready, I was going to do this.

Then, I got to my car. I went to start it, and it stalled. The battery was dead.

Now I don’t know why I did this, anxiety rarely has good reasons, but I broke down. I started sobbing right there in my car in front of my house. I wanted to call my boss and explain that I was having car problems and I wouldn’t be able to make it to my first day of work. I ran inside my house to my mother, who luckily didn’t have to work that day, and told her what happened through the tears streaming down my face.

In 30 seconds I went from determined and ready, to having a full blown anxiety attack and being completely sure that I would never be able to drive on the freeway.

She handed me her keys, hopped in the passenger seat, and made me drive there and back. The next day, with a brand new battery in my car, I drove by myself. That was all I needed, to force myself to just do it. I knew that I could, I just needed the shove.


Support

The other ‘tipping point’ was what helped me become comfortable driving longer distances on the freeway and through LA traffic. My boyfriend goes to school an hour away from me and we both really needed me to overcome my driving anxiety so that I could come down and visit him. However, I wanted to have a practice drive with him in the car before I had to drive it all by myself, so we planned a trip to go hangout in an area about an hour and a half away for the day.

The drive was awful. I hit a really bad patch of traffic, I got cut off, and had to face my biggest fear of needing to change lanes and being unable to because of how crowded it was. That caused a panic attack and I found myself driving the majority of the way with tears in my eyes and shaking hands.

Somehow, I did it. I got through it. Having my boyfriend in the passenger seat next to me to tell me that everything would be alright and walking me through any steps that I forgot helped enormously. He supported me through that rough patch and I couldn’t be more grateful.


Forgiveness


I knew deep down that in order to get past this, I just had to do it. I had to practice driving on the freeway, repeatedly. I had to suck it up, hold back the tears, and try again and again. I knew that I would be able to get through it. But I had one problem, I couldn’t do it alone, and nobody wanted to help me. My parents and my brother all worked during the day, and I didn’t feel safe driving with my dad in the car anymore.

Not only was I anxious, I was frustrated.

I didn’t want to be dependent on other people, I didn’t. I pride myself in being strong and independent. Whenever that slips and I find myself relying on other people, it freaks me out. So I hid, I told myself that my driving anxiety was something I would never get over and never be able to work through. I blamed myself, saying that I was stupid and unreasonable for having anxiety about something that billions of people do easily everyday.

What I needed to do was forgive myself. It’s not my fault that I have this anxiety, and I shouldn’t have to feel bad for trying my hardest to work through it. Once I found the ability to forgive myself I was able to begin to move past it, ask for the help I needed, and actively work on it.


Understanding
driving on the freeway

It’s been a year today, since I took that first step to beating my freeway driving anxiety and drove on the freeway by myself to work.

I still have to cope with my driving anxiety every day. I have to accept that. It doesn’t go away, I will be struggling with it for all of my life.

I drove down alone to visit my boyfriend at his school an hour away many times last year, and I am very proud of myself for doing so, but I still find myself shaking and biting back tears if I encounter traffic or a situation that makes it difficult to change lanes.


It’s a work in progress, but I’m not scared of myself anymore. I’m not letting my driving anxiety run my life. I am the one who decides where I’m going, when I’m going, and what route I’ll take to get there. Not my anxiety.

Dealing with driving anxiety is really difficult, but I’m getting better everyday.

Have you or a loved one ever experienced driving anxiety or anxiety of any kind? What was your experience of learning how to drive?

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Dealing with Driving Anxiety
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43 thoughts on “Dealing with Driving Anxiety

  • June 15, 2015 at 11:44 am
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    I can SO relate to this post. I also had horrible driving experiences with my dad. He didn’t do it on purpose because he had my safety and best interests in mind, but he had no idea what he was telling me developed a horrible anxiety. I didn’t have anxiety on highways, I had anxiety driving on bridges, at night, in the rain, and in traffic. When I went away for college, I moved to a city that had a lot more traffic than I’ve ever driven in. My driving anxiety actually caused a few stirs with my roommate because I wouldn’t drive her places since she didn’t have a car. What she didn’t understand was I wasn’t really driving myself anywhere but home, church, and to the grocery store. I just couldn’t bring myself to in traffic and she wanted to go to high traffic areas. It wasn’t until one of my friends that grew up in my university town took me out to drive with her several times and talked me through things while she drove and then talked me through my anxiety, shaking, and essentially tears when I ended up driving. I still have issues in some traffic, but it has gotten much better!

    –Megan
    http://www.lovemeganjune.com

    Reply
    • June 15, 2015 at 1:31 pm
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      I’m glad, and sad, that you can relate! Driving anxiety is incredibly difficult to cope with, and so many people have it.
      I’m so sorry to hear that your driving anxiety caused problems with your roommate, it’s definitely difficult for people without anxiety to understand it. That is so sweet and thoughtful for your friend from home to help talk you through it, that’s exactly what my boyfriend did!

      I’m glad that it has gotten much better, don’t give up 🙂
      Dani recently posted…Get To Work Book: First ImpressionsMy Profile

      Reply
  • June 15, 2015 at 4:40 pm
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    I have terrible anxiety in general and also when it comes to driving. Mostly in the snow/rain for me, been in a few accidents in the winter time. My boyfriend lives 3hrs from me and I make that drive every other weekend, it has really helped me!
    Lindsay recently posted…The No More Excuses DietMy Profile

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    • June 15, 2015 at 8:10 pm
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      I have pretty bad anxiety outside of driving as well, but the specific driving anxiety stopped me from doing daily tasks like getting work so I’m glad that I was able to fight it!
      Getting out and driving definitely helps, so I’m glad that you have that excuse to get out there and work through it, I hope it continues to improve! 🙂

      Reply
  • June 15, 2015 at 5:14 pm
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    Wow, I thought I was the only one that had driving anxiety! It’s an amazing feeling to know that you’re not alone in what your struggle with. Thank you so much for your transparency!
    The Young Hopeful recently posted…Launching very soon!My Profile

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    • June 15, 2015 at 8:07 pm
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      You’re welcome! I’m so surprised by the amazing responses here, I thought that it wasn’t this common, but it’s so relieving to hear that I’m not alone.

      Reply
  • June 15, 2015 at 5:23 pm
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    I refused to drive with my Dad from the time I got my learners until about three years later, for the exact reasons you described. Having him in the car would have really ruined my ability to cope. Since moving to a new city far away from family I have discovered I love love to drive!! But it took distance and practice to do it!
    Great post and awesome tips. I might apply them in other areas… anxiety is terrifying.
    Good for you for trying and trying!!
    Angela Tolsma recently posted…The Dog ShowMy Profile

    Reply
    • June 15, 2015 at 8:06 pm
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      I’m so glad that you were able to get into an environment where you had the chance to learn that you love to drive! I’ve learned that I enjoy driving short distances around my town in the dusk/dark, very relaxing!

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    • June 17, 2015 at 10:17 am
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      You’re so welcome! I’m glad I could help!

      Reply
    • June 17, 2015 at 10:18 am
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      I’ve never been in an accident before, but I bet that would terrify me into taking a break from driving. I’m glad to hear that you’re getting back out there, keep it up! 🙂

      Reply
  • June 16, 2015 at 9:55 am
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    I can relate to this post so much. When I first got my permit I had crashed twice. Those two experiences scared the heck out of me. So whenever I am behind the wheel I have the worst anxiety attack because I am worried I am going to hurt somebody. I still don’t have my driver license and I am 20. However this summer I was hoping to somehow overcome my fear and give it a go. This post has really helped me. Not many people in my family understand what I am going through and don’t think it’s all of a big deal and that I can just shut that part of my brain off but it isn’t that easy. I will try these tips and hopefully they will help me. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
    • June 17, 2015 at 10:20 am
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      It is definitely discouraging when nobody in your family can relate. My mother and my grandmother both have driving anxiety (the strange thing is that along with me none of us have it due to getting in an accident) so they related a little bit, but my father who grew up driving cars as a kid was definitely frustrated by me not picking it up easily.
      I hope you keep working on it and that you’re able to get through it and get your license this summer! Don’t give up, you can do it! 🙂

      Reply
  • June 16, 2015 at 3:57 pm
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    I understand this feeling completely! When I was 16 I as in an accident and have been dealing with driving anxieties ever since. I’ve been slowly dealing with it with my mom, though it’s only in spurts. I’ve been living in a city, so I don’t need to drive (/have been avoiding it), but when I go home it’s a necessity. I’ll definitely be putting these tips to the test, then!

    Reply
    • June 17, 2015 at 10:21 am
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      Slowly dealing with it is better than not dealing with it at all! Try to find a little quirk that helps you stay calm when driving. Mine is that I have to be singing along to upbeat music on the radio. Or, if I’m having a particularly bad day, it helps me to drive around when my car windows all rolled halfway down. Don’t know if it’s the fresh air or what but it helps me!
      If you find yours, let me know what it is!

      Reply
  • June 16, 2015 at 6:26 pm
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    I can absolutely relate to your post. I bet there’s so many of us out there too. I was so afraid of driving that it wasn’t until my first born was born that I got my driver’s license. I live in the burbs so driving is an absolute requirement. I drive all around town nowadays but you will rarely find me driving anywhere an hour away. Good luck facing your anxiety head on. I’m sure it’ll get better through time.

    Reply
    • June 17, 2015 at 10:23 am
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      I live in the burbs as well and I agree, driving is a requirement there! I’m glad you’ve gotten through your anxiety to be able to drive around town. Thank you! Yours will get better through time as well 🙂

      Reply
  • June 17, 2015 at 9:48 am
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    Good on you for facing your fears and trying to take control of the situation! I can totally relate, after 10 years of having a licence in Australia, I moved to the US and had to take my test here – I put it off for an entire year as I was so freaked out about driving on your huge freeways! Finally faced it and got my licence last week 🙂
    Donna recently posted…Comment on Broccoli and Feta Fritters by Whole Food BelliesMy Profile

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    • June 17, 2015 at 10:25 am
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      It’s so funny to me to hear people talk about US freeways like that! I’ve grown up in the same town in CA my entire life, and whenever I have friends from out of state visit they freak out about how much traffic there is and how huge the freeways are.. I had no clue a 4 lane freeway was big! All I knew was that I was scared by it!
      I’m so glad that you were able to face your anxiety and get your license, that’s a huge step and you should be proud!

      Reply
  • June 17, 2015 at 10:02 pm
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    I agree that long trips help ease the driving anxiety. I was injured in a car accident when I was 11 and very anxious about driving. The 7 hour drive to college helped me get past the fear. Stay brave!

    Reply
  • July 1, 2015 at 9:02 pm
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    I wish I’d had this article a long time ago! My anxiety wasn’t just over freeways, but all of driving, and I ended up not getting my license until I was 19 because of it! I still have a little trouble on highways, especially at night or in unfamiliar places, but all of your advice is really solid!

    Reply
  • July 7, 2015 at 6:10 am
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    I don’t have a car so I guess, I don’t have the right to complain how uncomfortable I’m hopping in. So, patience is indeed a virtue. So, before leaving the house, I always grab a cup of tea because it’s rich in theanine found in the green tea leaves which has calming effects. So, it is nice to hear that you have dealt your stressful situation gradually. It is very important to keep your composure in order to prohibit accidents along the way.

    Reply
  • July 31, 2015 at 5:20 am
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    I just came across this post and I totally and completely understand how you feel. I go to school in Los Angeles. I have to drive on the 405 twice a day and always at terrible times during rush hour which ends up taking me 2+ hours sometimes. Some days I wake up confident and ready to go, and other days I am incredibly anxious about my drive. My anxiety about it triples when there’s any type of rain because the driving gets so erratic. But your tips are really helpful and I try some of them as well! I always put on music that makes me feel more calm. I also usually go to starbucks and buy a hot tea or something I can drink to make me feel more calm on the inside. You’re very brave for working past your anxiety 🙂

    Reply
  • August 1, 2015 at 2:59 pm
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    Oh my goodness, my dad did the same thing to me when I was learning how to drive. He was yelling at me when we were at the highway, and I was about to turn onto it when he’s like “Stop!”, but we were almost in the middle of the road and a car was coming. So he’s like “GO! NONONO STOP STOP!!! NO GO! STOP! GO!”
    Like seriously, what do you want me to do, Dad??? Pick one!
    I ended up driving with my mom after that, and my brother and sister refused to have my dad ride along with them when they were learning too. Goodness. It was awful. Thankfully, my mom is much kinder and gentler, and my driving anxiety isn’t as bad as it could have been.

    Reply
  • September 3, 2015 at 6:19 pm
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    I have horrible anxiety while driving or even being the passenger. I am not even entirely sure why or how it started. When I was younger about 12or 13 I use to drive my brothers car or his friends cars all of the time and it didn’t bother me. One of his friends had a huge lot, he live in the dessert, that I would do laps around for hours and I loved the feeling of driving. I was so excited to get my permit but like you I waited a year before testing for my license. I am petrified now of driving and I hate it. I live up in the mountains so the thought or chance driving off of a cliff doesn’t really help me either. My anxiety is so bad that I freak out even in the passenger seat. My boyfriend is an amazing driver, he actually drives fire trucks for a living, and his driving freaks me out. It’s not even his driving it’s everyone else around him. If I head squealing tires I freak, if a car looks like it’s getting to close I freak, I am constantly thinking of worst case scenarios and I am not sure how to get past it. I is so bad sometimes I feel like I am going to pass out.

    Reply
  • January 13, 2016 at 12:27 pm
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    Very relatable! I had been free of panic attacks for a number of years but they came back when I started driving, since then I have struggled with anxiety. This post was super relatable and helpful. It’s also an encouragement to see that I am not the only one who has struggled with this. Thank you so much Dani!

    Reply
  • January 16, 2016 at 10:00 am
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    It’s reassuring that I’m not the only one experiencing driving anxiety. I got my learners permit when I was 17 . I am 21 now and I still don’t have my license. I can drive around my neighborhood like it’s no big deal but driving in busy areas scare me. I have yet to drive on the freeway, that will be an experience. I feel fine driving with my dad but my mom makes me nervous. If I make a mistake , she will freak out, making me freak out and mess up even more. I probably have more driving experience than a 16 year old by now but I don’t feel confident in myself. I’m afraid that I will get into an accident ( and my mom fuels this fear). Hopefully your tips will help me and I can finally just go for it. Thank you. 🙂

    Reply
    • February 18, 2016 at 1:24 pm
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      I can’t tell you how much seeing your comment helped me! I’m in the exact situation you are! I got my permit kind of late at 17 and I’m now 20 almost 21 still without my license. It’s so difficult when people don’t understand! I can drive around near my house, but school and everything else I’m involved in are far away through construction and interstates. It makes me so nervous that I can’t even work up the courage to try! I’m trying to push myself to get it before I turn 21, so we’ll see. 🙂 Good luck to you!

      Reply
      • February 19, 2016 at 12:13 pm
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        I am so glad this helped! Don’t worry at all about getting your permit and license late, take your time and make sure you are comfortable.
        Take it baby steps at a time. Drive on the interstate for one exit and get off. The next day merge on one lane and drive for two exits then get off. Take it small steps and before you know it you’ll be there. Good luck!!

        Reply
  • February 25, 2016 at 4:13 pm
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    This is so helpful… when I first started driving I was 15 my brother yelled at me and I crashed on a fence.. it’s been some years.. I’m 28 and I did practice with my friends and family but I still get anxiety this week I’m going to start driving since my job is only 5 minutes away.. it’s time to be independent and feel better about going places by myself

    Reply
  • March 25, 2016 at 9:44 am
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    Uho God, really driving is so tense me.I thought I was like the only person who is absolutely terrified of driving. It is a GREAT annoyance to my father and all my friends this I am stupid. I got a BEAUTIFUL car for my 21st but feel so ungrateful as I actually HATE driving.

    Reply
  • March 31, 2016 at 8:37 pm
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    Oh, Dani! I understand your case becasue this also used to be my problem. Many previous years, I even can’t drive on the freeway. Thus, I try to deal with driving anxiety. Finally, I can do it.

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    • April 3, 2016 at 8:08 pm
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      I’m glad you can finally do it and overcame your anxiety!! Congrats!

      Reply
  • June 21, 2016 at 8:01 pm
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    I failed my test three times because I would get so anxious driving. I’m getting better but I still haven’t driven on the highway by myself or really more than 15 minutes by myself. I overthink or feel like I’m going to do the wrong thing or not know what to do and get in an accident and hurt myself or someone else. It’s reassuring to know that there are other people who get anxious driving but are still able to do it and get more comfortable with it. It helps me to study my route beforehand and walking myself through different scenarios than to just go drive somewhere solely on gps. I need to slowly start driving farther places and get more comfortable and I hope that your advice will help me with that. I need to get more comfortable driving so I can get where I need to go and be independent. This article just popped up in my Pinterest and it is one of the most relatable things I’ve read in awhile so thank you for that.

    Reply
  • July 7, 2016 at 7:26 am
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    My son has panic attacks and I have wondered if Driving lessons would be the good solution for him with learning to drive. After reading your article, I think just taking baby steps is helpful. It is also helpful to have other who are there as a support, so I think that driving lessons could be helpful since they usually do this in groups with their peers. I will have to think over the topic more, but you have me hopeful that this could be achievable. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  • November 7, 2016 at 8:37 pm
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    Thank you for writing this.
    I have the worst anxiety while driving and was involved in a serious MVA on the highway 6 months ago which made it 10x worse. I refuse to drive on the highway, and I often feel so alone and stupid because no one else around me seems to share my fear. I cry in my car usually once a week because the fear is so bad and I can’t drive anywhere unfamiliar, and I hate driving in the dark.
    Seeing how you dealt with this fear and overcame it encourages me to keep going and make baby steps.

    Thank you <3

    Reply
  • March 19, 2017 at 10:06 am
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    Wow, thank you so much for posting this. I needed it. I don’t have driving anxiety as much as you did, but I haven’t really driven much since I passed my test almost two years ago (haven’t needed to, since I live in a city now), and I’ve only driven in a city and motorway once in my life, and that was with my driving instructor. I tried to drive again a while back, and realised that I suddenly had this dreadful terror of driving on my own. I can drive to the nearest town and back, and around my local area (which is rural). I may now be forced to drive, if my new job is inconvenient to get to by bus. That scares me so badly, but you made me realise I need to be patient with myself and ask people and friends for help 🙂 Thank you.

    Reply
  • May 5, 2017 at 12:01 pm
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    I know this post isn’t quite recent, but I wanted to say THANK YOU for this. I had never had a problem driving until about 2 years ago. I have horrible sinus problems and I tend to get fluid behind my eardrum, which causes me to feel dizzy. Sinus surgery at this point is not an option, and meds only help a little bit. So a couple of years ago, I went to pick my daughter up from school and I had a sinus fluid shift (I guess that’s what they’re called) while I was driving and I got really dizzy. I had to pull over and I was so afraid to drive further. I basically crawled to the school in my car, and when I got there, I called my mother-in-law to pick my daughter and me up. My husband was mad at me because he didn’t think I was even trying to drive. It was hard to explain to him, but he eventually got it. He still gets a little impatient with me if he hears me explain that I don’t drive. I don’t think he always goes about things the right way. He can be supportive, but like I said, sometimes he gets irritated if I say I don’t want to drive somewhere. I definitely think that your post will be the most helpful thing for me to read when I feel anxious. It will remind me that I’m not alone and that it will take time to get better, but that’s okay!! Thank you again for such a fantastic post!!

    Reply

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