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

If you’re like Erik, who was worried about panicking, deliberately bring on fake symptoms of panic so you can practice driving with the symptoms, but without actual anxiety. This sounds ridiculous, but it works: for example, drink more coffee than usual so you can practice feeling jittery while you drive. Hold your breath for just a few seconds to bring on feeling a little lightheaded without danger. Literally run to your car so your heart is pounding when you get in and start the engine.

It might feel funny to go for a drive just to practice doing things you don’t like, but it’s worth the investment.

If you’re like Karla or Ali, who avoid certain situations, like left turns, highways, or parallel parking, start gradually practicing these situations when the stakes are low. It might feel funny to go for a drive just to practice doing things you don’t like, but it’s worth the investment. Practice parallel parking on a quiet street.  Drive on the highway for one exit on a weekend morning.  Then get back on and go two exits. Then three. You get the picture.

Step #3: Repeat Step #2 as often as necessary. Keep upping the ante and gradually, but safely, face your fears.

Step #4: Finally, challenge yourself to drop kinda-sorta-superstitious behaviors that artificially tamp down your anxiety, like staying in the slow lane, not driving at rush hour, never going faster than a particular speed, always having a bottle of water, blowing the air vents on full blast, or not driving alone. These are called safety behaviors—they make you feel safer, but in the long run, are getting in your way, because you attribute your ability to their presence. It’s like Dumbo with his magic feather. Experiment with going without and see what happens.

To do this, ask how you would drive if you were not anxious. Would you use all the lanes? Drive whenever you needed to? Drive at the speed of traffic? Whatever the answer, experiment with doing just that. This is fake it ‘til you make it. It will feel wrong at first, but guess what--it works. The principle here is that when you see yourself doing it, you start to believe you can.

All the tips can be summed up this way: Put action before readiness. If you wait until you feel ready, you probably won’t do it. But if you do what you’re scared of, a little at a time, your readiness (and more importantly, your confidence) will catch up.

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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.