The question is though; with driving anxiety, who is in danger? The person behind the wheel, or the people who their actions will affect? The scary answer is: both.
When we are in a positive emotional state, our bodies produce so-called ‘happy chemicals’ such as endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. However, when we are nervous, stressed, or anxious, we produce the ‘stress hormones’ cortisol and adrenalin, which can have very detrimental effects, not just emotionally, but physically as well.
When describing something they find frightening, people may say things like: ‘I just froze, I couldn’t move’, ‘my legs went to jelly’, ‘I felt sick to my stomach’, ‘I felt like my heart was going to burst out of my chest’, ‘I felt sweaty and clammy’, ‘I just couldn’t focus’, ‘my brain just shut down’. All these are the effects of cortisol and adrenalin, and it doesn’t stop there.
Thinking back to that sabre-toothed tiger – your entire focus is on running away from it; it hardly matters when you’re in fear for your life how pretty the flowers are around you, so your brain shuts down your peripheral vision.
The same thing can happen when you experience driving anxiety, and because your peripheral vision is reduced, it’s likely that you don’t see the 38-ton truck, motorcycle or cyclist coming from your right, when you’re trying to decide if it’s safe to emerge at that busy multi-lane roundabout on a hill. Whether you enter into ‘flight’ mode and pull out in front of the truck, or ‘freeze’ and you simply cannot move, you are putting yourself, and others, in danger.
When people suffer with driving anxiety, they experience a physical, powerful sensation of fear taking over their body; their heart rate increases, their palms get sweaty, their breathing becomes shallow, and they feel like they have no control over this, or the emotions that they are experiencing. This is called ‘anticipatory anxiety’ or the ‘fear of the fear’. Their mind is creating a cascade of scary, fearful scenarios that they truly believe that they have no control over.
So, what can someone who experiences such anxiety do? Although this can’t be covered in depth in a short article, a crucial piece of advice is to be mindful of what we say to ourselves, and others! The problem is that our language creates our emotional state; we act on that emotion, which then fuels negative outcomes in behaviour. By being aware of this, we can alter our language to alter our emotional state. It’s obviously not as simple as saying ‘pull yourself together’; if it were, there would be no such thing as driving anxiety! However, by using the correct language, we can support our emotional state, enabling us to control our emotions, rather than them controlling us.
Being safe on the road ultimately requires a balance of confidence and competence. Reducing – or even eliminating – driving anxiety, combined with ensuring drivers have the necessary skill level, will help with this immensely. There are many approaches to reducing driving anxiety, and if the right psychological tools are implemented, then cortisol and adrenalin will no longer cause that dangerous flight, fight or freeze response.
If you would like help or more information about driving anxiety or phobia, please visit www.lofaway2pass.com/driving-phobias/
Written in partnership with Total Drive
Diane Hall is a DVSA Approved Driving Instructor, with over over twenty years experience in the industry, and a qualified therapist, specialising in driving anxiety and test nerves