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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?