Driving can be one of life’s most liberating and empowering joys, but for those that feel anxious about getting behind the wheel personal mobility can be a nightmare.
Anxiety affects people in different ways and for various reasons, and while many Australians perform their daily commute on virtual auto pilot, for some it is a nerve-wracking experience.
Clinical psychologist Catherine Madigan, who runs a specialised anxiety clinic based in Melbourne called Anxiety Australia, says it’s important to find the root cause of the anxiety before trying to find possible solutions.
“Some people are just worried about having a panic attack in a car. They don’t want to be trapped on the West Gate Bridge, or don’t like driving through tunnels, or being at intersections. They have a trapped feeling so become scared of suffering a panic attack more than actually being scared of driving,” she explains.
“But some people are very worried about the actual driving, that they are going to have an accident.”
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Whether it’s because of lingering side-effects after a crash that left your cage rattled, or a general nervous feeling about being behind the wheel, there are a number of ways to get over driving anxiety.
Madigan recommends gradual exposure to driving and to do it in situations that are less anxiety inducing, such as with a trusted and helpful instructor or in very light traffic rather than rush hour, and increasing the difficulty from there as confidence grows.
“There are particular things that make things anxious, like hook turns, merging, or just going at high speeds on the highway for example,” she adds.
“Some people may benefit from having extra brush-up driving lessons with someone who is good with anxious drivers.
“People need to do what we call progressive or graded exposure with driving. If they lack confidence in certain driving scenarios they need to practice it.
“If you are anxious about driving it would make sense to drive at times when the road isn’t as crowded.”
Core to banishing driving anxiety is building up confidence in measured and controlled environments. Defensive driving course are great for this.
All drivers are encouraged to take part in a defensive driving course, but those dealing with driving anxiety will particularly benefit from the opportunity to develop their skills safely and away from traffic with a trained professional.
However, Madigan acknowledges that having an instructor in the passenger seat could add pressure for some anxious drivers.
“It is important to find out what is helpful for the anxious driver, and discovering what makes them feel more secure,” she said.
“Generally, for people that are anxious about driving, I would say to confront a situation that you don’t like, to make it as easy on yourself as possible.”
So, if you are suffering from driving anxiety, it’s important to identify the root cause, and then slowly build up your skills and confidence in a way you feel most comfortable with.
Speaking to a psychologist, or making use of organisation such as BeyondBlue and The Anxiety Recovery Centre is also highly encouraged.