Blog reviewed by Dr Filippo Queirazza (MD, PhD, MRCPsych), Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Glasgow
If driving causes you to experience panic attacks, this can be incredibly frightening. It can also make it difficult for you to travel, as you worry about the possibility of another happening.
This blog looks at why driving - or the thought of driving – may be causing you to have these panic attacks. We have also looked at what you can do to stop them from happening.
Why do I get Panic Attacks about Driving?
Driving may cause you to experience panic attacks for a multitude of reasons. Panic attacks often arise when someone is in - or are thinking about - moments that feel:
- Outside of their control
Driving-related triggers for panic attacks include motorways, bridges, tunnels and rush hour traffic. The fear of having a panic attack when driving can also lead to one happening.
Panic attacks when driving can be frightening and dangerous. It can also affect your ability to drive. It is crucial that you tell the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVLA) about any condition that could affect your ability to drive.
If you think you're having a panic attack whilst driving, or even at the thought of driving, here are some signs and symptoms to look out for.
- Excessive sweating
- Trembling or shaking
- Feelings of dizziness
- Chest pains and shortness of breath - tightness of the chest and feeling as though it’s a struggle to breathe
- A racing or pounding heart
- Feeling as though you are choking
- Hopelessness, confusion and frustration
- Feeling out of control
These are just a few symptoms of panic attacks and you don't have to experience all of them to be struggling.
If you do feel any of these symptoms whilst driving, pull over in a safe place, focus on your breathing, and try to calm down. It's important to remind yourself that these symptoms will pass.
How to Overcome Panic Attacks Caused by Driving
If you experience panic attacks related to driving, it’s important to do something to stop them from worsening and having such a big impact on your life.
There are things that you can do - with the right support - to get them under control. Many people find it useful to work through a therapy programme to learn ways to manage their anxiety and panic attacks.
Advice and information often given to people during a therapy programme includes the following:
Interrogate your catastrophic thoughts
When you drive or think about driving, do you worry about the worst case scenario? For example, do you focus on the idea of crashing, getting caught by a speed camera or becoming lost? It is likely that these catastrophic thoughts are triggering your panic attacks.
Learning to pause and challenge these worries can help you to start recognising their irrationality. This can then stop catastrophic thoughts in their tracks before they lead to panic attacks.
Focus on the present, not on the future
When you worry about driving, are you focusing on what will happen in the near or distant future?
Thinking about all the bad things that could happen will be putting you in a state of panic. Your brain will be sending signals to your body that danger is likely to be coming soon, causing it to react.
Learning how to ‘be in the moment’ can put a stop to the worries about the future that cause your panic attacks. Introducing and using mindfulness and relaxation techniques can help you to learn how to move past the worries about what could happen in favour of focusing on the present moment.
If you are having a panic attack, you can also focus on your breathing. This is a short term strategy to help you calm your panic attack whilst in the moment. There are many simple breathing exercises you can try to help calm your symptoms and continue driving safely.
These techniques can be useful at times when you feel anxious, or when you feel a panic attack coming on. They give you an opportunity to let go of the thoughts that are causing you to worry and that have the potential to lead to panic attacks.
Notice how you behave when you feel anxious
When you are anxious about driving, do you do certain things in an attempt to alleviate how you feel? Some of the things that people do when they feel anxious about driving include:
- Avoiding driving at certain times or on certain roads
- Avoiding driving to new places
- Heavily researching and mapping out new routes
- Excessively searching the internet for traffic information
- Stopping driving altogether
Carrying out these sorts of behaviours will only ever reinforce your anxiety. They signal that there is a reason to worry.
Replacing these fear-based behaviours with healthy coping strategies is important. When you start to worry, healthy coping strategies that can help include:
- Talking to someone
- Listening to your favourite music or podcast
- Watching ‘feel-good’ videos
These strategies will help you to reduce your worry before it has the chance to spiral out of control and causes a panic attack.
Support and Treatment for your Panic Attacks
When looking for professional support for panic disorder, start by visiting your GP or a mental health treatment provider like Priory.
They will be able to assess you and provide you with a diagnosis and access to treatment. A therapeutic programme is often recommended for people who suffer with panic attacks. They provide you with a safe space in which you can work through the thoughts and feelings that cause your panic attacks. They also give you an opportunity to learn strategies to help you manage them in the future.
Some therapeutic techniques used in the treatment of panic attacks, which are available at Priory, include the below:
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a therapy technique that teaches people how to challenge and replace anxious thoughts to prevent panic attacks. Mindfulness and relaxation techniques are also taught in CBT to help people better manage their anxious thoughts and stop them from getting out of control
Acceptance and commitment therapy teaches you how to accept and let go of anxious thoughts so they don't affect how you feel. It also teaches you ways to dissipate your fear and worry so that they don’t intensify to the point of a panic attack
Exposure therapy can also be useful for people who experience panic attacks. You learn coping strategies and then take small steps towards exposing yourself to the things that cause your attacks. As you put the coping strategies into practice, you start to recognise that you can cope in the situations you were anxious about. This in turn can reduce your worry and your panic attacks
If you would like to find out more about the therapeutic support that can be provided here at Priory, please do get in touch with our team using the contact details below.
For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding mental health and wellbeing, please call 0330 056 6020 or click here to submit an enquiry form. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here
Call our Enquiry Line