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Driving Anxiety – Who is in danger?

You may remember learning at school about our ancestors’ flight, fight or freeze response to being chased by a sabre-tooth tiger, and this is exactly the same response people experience if they suffer from driving anxiety.

The question is though; who is in danger? The person behind the wheel, or the effect of their potential actions on others? The scary answer is, both!

When we are in a good emotional state, we 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 fearful, perhaps an exam, a presentation, a job interview or driving, people will 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.

To be safe on the road, it’s ultimately about a balance of confidence and competence. A driver who is confident, but who lacks ability, is a danger; but then, so is a good driver, if they are controlled by their fear. If driving anxiety is reduced, or even eliminated, and if the driver has the appropriate skill level, then this is certainly a step towards safer roads. 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