Anxiety Took Away My Love of Driving
I used to love driving. Now it’s something I struggle just to get through.
I’ve always liked driving, ever since I got my license at sixteen. The freedom of it, the ability to go anywhere I liked without relying on someone else. I loved road trips especially, long stretches of road with either a good playlist and some friends, or just my own thoughts for company. Sometimes a long drive was my only option to have time alone to think, and then it would take on an almost meditative quality.
Sure, I felt a little nervous when I first started driving, and certain stretches of freeway would make me a bit tense. But nothing extreme, and certainly nothing that would cause me to give up driving for good.
That is of course, until the panic set in.
When driving started feeling like a threat
I can pinpoint my phobia of driving to the exact day, a dark November evening of last year. I was driving to meet my family for dinner, and the drive required me to take a busy freeway that I normally avoid into the downtown area of a nearby city that I don’t like to drive around if I can help it, with it’s one-way streets and pedestrians that seem to have a death wish. I already wasn’t feeling well, hadn’t been for a while. A series of infections and antibiotics had left my digestive system feeling not-optimal, to say the least. But we’d already had to reschedule this dinner twice, and I was determined to go.
I’m not a stranger to anxiety, and as I drove down the freeway in the dark, my partner in the passenger seat, I started to feel all the familiar signs of it, the tension in my body, the knot in my stomach. I already felt a little sick, and the anxiety just made me feel worse.
My anxiety always goes right to my stomach, and there have been occasions in the past where it’s gotten so bad I’ve actually thrown up. As I tried to breathe through it and calm down that night on the freeway, a voice inside my head posed the question, “What if I get so sick I throw up while driving, and then we get in an accident?”
Now, I’ve had my mind shout plenty of worst-case scenarios at me when I’m trying to concentrate on something else. This wasn’t a new experience. Sometimes I cope better than others. On this particular night, my coping mechanisms apparently had packed up for an extended vacation, and the alarm bells in my head screaming, “WE CAN’T HANDLE THIS” wouldn’t be silenced.
It didn’t seem to matter that I wasn’t actually feeling sick enough to make a barf-induced accident a realistic possibility, or that when I’m not overtaken by anxiety I believe I could probably handle such an occurrence if it were to happen. For whatever reason, on this drive, the thought that I could puke all over myself while driving and then crash sent me into a full-on panic, which didn’t dissipate until we were safely parked and I was no longer cruising along in a metal death trap.
On this particular night, my coping mechanisms apparently had packed up for an extended vacation, and the alarm bells in my head screaming, “WE CAN’T HANDLE THIS” wouldn’t be silenced.
Writing this now, in a calm state, not anywhere near a car, it does occur to me that this is one of the more ridiculous fears to send me into a panicked spiral. The neat thing about anxiety is that it doesn’t matter how absurd the fear is; when you’re in it, it feels like a certainty that it will not only happen, but that it will be the absolute worst thing you have ever experienced.
Once safely on non-automotive ground, I started to feel better. But as it got closer and closer to dinner being over and the inevitability of me needing to drive again, I started to get more anxious. I didn’t want to have another panic attack
Driving hasn’t been the same since
You can probably guess by now what happened next. That panic attack wasn’t the last one I would have behind the wheel of the car. What had once been something I enjoyed suddenly felt like a threat.
At first, I only got anxious on the freeway, but soon I could barely even drive the familiar route to the grocery store without feeling anxiety. Still, I forced myself to do drives that were challenging, even after I had more than one occasion where I had to pull over to deal with a panic attack.
The final straw came when my partner and I were going to look at a wedding venue for the wedding we thought we would be able to have in 2020, and I had a panic attack so bad I had to pull off the freeway and couldn’t start driving again for two hours. My poor partner, who doesn’t have a license, felt helpless as he comforted me.
Eventually we managed to make it back home, but I had to take a convoluted back roads route to avoid the freeway and stop one more time to breathe deeply.
After that incident, I basically stopped driving anywhere that was further than the grocery store, and I avoided doing that as much as possible. With COVID in full swing by this point, I didn’t have much of a reason to go out anyways, and pretty soon I was down to only driving twice a month to go grocery shopping.
My frustration grew as an activity I used to love morphed into a form of torture because my messed-up anxiety brain decided that driving was terrible, actually, and sent waves of panic down my body and directly to my stomach each time I got behind the wheel of my car.
The cycle of panic went like this: worry about driving before I’m even in the car, get in the car, start to feel sick, feel anxious because I feel sick and now I’m worried about the barf + crash scenario, become more anxious, more sick…you get the picture.
Trapped at home through a combination of COVID restrictions and my inability to drive anywhere, I became more and more angry with myself. Why had I suddenly developed a phobia of driving after all these years? Why couldn’t I get my anxiety under control? Would I always be like this, unable to drive, feeling isolated and stuck?
Even though I’d dealt with anxiety in different forms for years, and I understand that anxiety is an illness and not a personal failing, it was still hard to not feel bad about myself over my driving anxiety. Especially when I didn’t understand why it had started, or how to go about dealing with it.
Trapped at home through a combination of COVID restrictions and my inability to drive anywhere, I became more and more angry with myself. Why had I suddenly developed a phobia of driving after all these years?
I knew I had to find a solution
After a few months of debilitating anxiety keeping me essentially house-bound, I started attacking the problem with a new therapist. I’ve been in therapy for a couple of years, but because of some insurance issues I’d had to take a bit of a break and hadn’t been for a couple of months when I started out with my new therapist. We talked about my driving anxiety and she helped me come up with a plan for managing it.
She wanted me to do exposure therapy, to start with very small amounts of driving then work my way up. At the beginning, I could only drive for about five minutes, and even then my anxiety was almost overwhelming.
The whole prospect felt daunting, and I couldn’t imagine there would ever be a time that I would get into a car and not feel like I was going to die. Now that my brain had found this specific avenue of anxiety to wander down, I didn’t see any way of finding my way back again.
But after a while, those short drives became easier. And then I started driving a little longer and a little longer.
A work in progress
I wish I could say that I’m all better now, that I can get in the car and drive anywhere I want, whenever I want without a hint of anxiety. Except that’s not the case. While I have made improvements, and I can do short drives with relative ease (most days) I still avoid freeways, long drives, or even driving by myself if I can help it (I’d rather have someone riding shotgun; it’s harder for my brain to distract me with anxiety if there’s another person around.)
And I wish I could say I don’t still feel bad about myself. I know I’m doing my best to deal with my anxiety, but some days I start to resent that this is even something I have to deal with in the first place. I used to love driving. Now it’s something I struggle just to get through.
I don’t know if I will ever enjoy driving again the way I used to. I hope I do. It’s hard to imagine going back to the way I felt before, but I hope it’s possible.
Driving used to mean a lot to me. I’m not quite ready to give up on it yet.
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Grace Moore is a writer from Washington. She writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and the occasional poem. She also writes articles on travel, mental health, writing, and books. Sometimes she’s funny, or at least that’s what her mom says. Follow her on Instagram @gracieawriter.