How to Conquer Your Fear of Driving

It’s summer!  Time for beach trips and mountain escapes, most of which involve the great open road. But for many of us, heading out on the highway feels like an ordeal, not an escape. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen covers fear of driving and how to kick it to the curb.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #114

This week, by request from Marilyn in Massachusetts, we’ll cover fear of driving. As fellow Bay Staters, Marilyn and I know that Massachusetts drivers are not called Massholes for nothing. Indeed, of the cities with the dubious distinction of having the worst drivers in the nation, 3 of the top 5 are in Massachusetts

But no matter where you live, being scared to drive can really get in the way; indeed, if life is a highway, it’s easy for a phobia to push you into breakdown lane. Unless we’re lucky enough to live in a city with great public transportation, driving is necessary for basic freedom and independence.

But not all fear of driving looks the same: there are generally four reasons people are afraid to drive.

The first is a traumatic experience. Let’s take Nora for example: When Nora was twenty-five, she was driving home from a night out and got hit by a driver who was texting. Thankfully, even though her car was totaled, Nora was relatively unscathed and just needed a few stitches. But three years later, she hasn’t driven since.

If your story is like Nora’s, it makes sense that you don’t feel safe in a car. For you, the possibility of an accident is all too real and all too salient. If you’re having nightmares or flashbacks (also called re-experiencing), are on edge, tense, easily startled, and have trouble sleeping (also called hyperarousal), avoiding the car (predictably called avoidance) completes the trifecta of posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Indeed, up to one-third of people who are in a serious accident have PTSD 30 days or more after the accident.

A second theme of driving fear is Erik’s. Erik sometimes has panic attacks, and while he’s never had one while driving, he’s convinced that if he does, he’ll lose control of the car and unintentionally re-create the big crash scene in Talladega Nights (“Rickyyyy!”).

The problem is that his fear creates a cycle: Erik’s fear that he’s a split second away from a horrible accident is stressful, and stress (a pounding heart, feeling lightheaded, and more) feels a lot like panic, which in turns convinces him he’s on the verge of an attack. Next thing Erik knows, he’s pulled over on the side of the road, convinced he narrowly missed panicking and losing control of the car.

Our third variation is Karla. Karla gets stressed thinking that she’s a bad driver, is annoying everyone, and is in everyone’s way. She experiences driving as a performance, like she’s being tested and judged by everyone on the road. As a result, she hates parallel parking, especially when someone is waiting, and dislikes waiting for left turns because someone going straight might end up getting impatient with her.

Finally, there’s Ali.  Ali is afraid of the possibility of an accident and just doesn’t trust his driving skills, much less the skills of others. He drives, but reluctantly and only on local roads—no highways. He’ll go out of his way to avoid a bridge or tunnel, and only takes left turns if there’s a designated green arrow.

So in a world of fast and furious, how can these four people, plus our listener Marilyn, feel safe and content?

No matter your version of driving fear, the cure will be getting back on the road. But you don’t have to go from zero to sixty (you knew that one was coming)—instead, work your way back slowly.  

So let’s go back to driver’s ed, of sorts—just without the teenage acne or the gym teacher in the passenger’s seat.

Step #1: Plan a driving experience that won’t freak you out. The aim is to give your brain a healing experience—to put you behind the wheel in a situation that is a teeny bit challenging, but achievable.

So if you haven’t driven in awhile, just sit in your car in the driveway—you don’t even have to start the engine. Or drive around a quiet neighborhood on a weekend morning.  Or throwback to driver’s ed and drive around an empty parking lot. Just get behind the wheel in some capacity. Whatever you choose, do it until you feel your nerves eventually start to settle. Then the next day, do it again. You’ll know you’re done when you want to avoid the car not because you’re scared, but because you’re bored out of your mind.  Then it’s time to move on to the next step.

Step #2: Up the ante—a little. You choose where you go from here. Now you get to customize.  

If you’re like Nora and were in an accident, you may ask why you would put yourself in a position where that might happen again? In this case, you get back behind the wheel in order to separate past and present. By not getting behind the wheel again, you stay stuck in the past.  Put some safe, gentle, corrective experiences between the past and the present, and you’ll find driving gets easier every time.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.