Learning To Drive With Anxiety Can Feel Impossible, But It Can Be Done
I passed my driver’s theory test last week and, no, I’m not writing this while putting off my A-Level revision and trying to blag a fake ID for the weekend.
I’m actually a 30-year-old journalist with back ache and an avalanche of emails to sift through; full throttle adulthood bearing down on me like a dog over a helpless, worn-out chew toy.
It’s not that I’ve never wanted to drive, I’ve actually always really, really wanted to learn. It’s just that, for a long time, the thought of driving terrified me beyond comprehension, and not just in the usual jittery sense.
As someone with anxiety, I’ve never trusted in my own abilities the way I would naturally trust another person, driving-wise or otherwise. I’m extremely jumpy and react badly to sudden, unexpected situations, traits that don’t bode well for the somewhat unpredictable nature of the open road.
Furthermore, my anxiety has left me with a fairly shaky sense of self-esteem, meaning I’m constantly doubting my own judgement and decision making; believing myself to be less capable than those around me.
Of course, I’m far from the only one to experience such feelings. Although driving may seem to be an everyday task to many, for some people it can feel absolutely terrifying, for a variety of complicated reasons.
I spoke with Kayla Lyons, 28, from Southern California, whose anxiety around driving stems from being involved in a number of terrifying accidents.
Although Kayla technically can drive, having gotten her permit at 15 and her drivers license at 16, her anxiety currently makes driving very difficult.
Kayla told UNILAD:
When I first learned to drive, I imagine I had the same amount of anxiety and cautiousness other young people do, but my fear was exacerbated by my first car accident, which unfortunately wasn’t my last.
About one week after getting my first car, I was in a bad accident on the highway after hitting black ice in the winter. I was hit by another car, did a full 360° turn and hit the cement median.
I was lucky to walk away uninjured but the car was totalled. Over the past 12 years since getting my drivers license I’ve been in multiple accidents, a few smaller ‘fender benders’ and two severe accidents ending in my car being un-drivable after. I was hit both times by other vehicles, leaving me feeling very helpless and out of control while driving.
The most serious of these accidents occurred in 2018, while Kayla was riding on the back of a motorbike. A car hit the bike from behind, throwing Kayla into the middle of the highway. Kayla was left with burns covering the left side of her body, and feels lucky to have survived.
After the incident, Kayla never fully recovered her driving abilities, and has had to undergo various types of therapy to combat her severe anxiety and panic attacks. This has included exposure therapy, a treatment that gradually exposes a person to the source of their anxiety or fear.
Kayla told UNILAD:
Exposure therapy helps a lot, but it’s very difficult mentally. Over the years, exposure therapy helped me go from not even being able to sit in a car while it was off, to driving five hours away from home at night, alone.
Of course, there are always set backs, and there are periods of time where I didn’t need to be in therapy, but the pandemic really negatively impacted my driving and the progress I was making beforehand.
I passed my theory test the first time around some years back, following a series of shaky lessons, and even went on to take a practical test. However, it went so mortifyingly wrong on what I felt at the time to be a deeply personal level that I never felt able to try again.
It was a freezing day in mid December. I can still remember how I had to watch my footing on the icy pavement as I picked my way to the car, belly a chilly tangle of knots. Everything looked beautiful and blurry and terrifying, and I felt the gloom of impending failure as soon as I fastened my seatbelt.
I won’t list every minor and major I clocked up. Let’s just say I genuinely couldn’t cope with the panic that the snow had churned up; the skids and the beeping and the fairy light glare. I ended up pulling up by the side of the road and staring blankly into space, defeated and completely mortified.
After I got home, I raided the cupboard for chocolate and curled back up in my bed for an afternoon of watching Netflix Christmas movies through teary eyes. I’d pushed myself beyond my limit, I’d thought at the time. Driving, and taking risks in general, just wasn’t for me.
Of course, I’m far from the only one to have come back to driving after swearing off it for good. I spoke with Steff Hanson, a 25-year-old from Worcestershire who felt she was ‘terrible at driving’ as a teenager, and ended up packing it in for a number of years.
Steff told UNILAD:
I told myself I’d never learn to drive again. Then, in January 2020 I decided to start learning to drive again but this time, in an automatic car.
Although I am making far more progress, my anxiety affects me massively on the roads which can be very annoying for myself and for the instructor.
I question the majority of my decisions, I panic and I ask my instructor stupid questions and/or the same questions every week because of insecurity and anxiety.
I can relate to this sense of insecurity all too well, however the pandemic has changed my outlook on driving. Like so many others across the world, I have found myself stuck inside, staring at the same four walls day after day, dreaming of all the places I wanted to visit once I was free.
I imagined myself driving to Cornwall in the summertime, or heading to Wales to see some mountains. Naturally, I also envisioned myself sailing through the McDonald’s drive thru solo on a Friday night, should the whim take me.
With all these grand ambitions in mind, I found myself Googling instructors once again, determined to overcome my terror at the sight of roundabouts and sudden cyclists. This, I knew, would take a big dose of self belief on top of the practice required.
Rebecca Lockwood, a neuro linguistic programming hypnotherapy coach and trainer, told UNILAD:
It is normal to feel anxiety when learning new things. Especially to people who may have had to have breaks between lessons it can feel like having to start again from the start, which can cause some anxious and apprehensive feelings, which is normal.
With anxiety around driving the best way to overcome this is to imagine in your mind’s eye yourself having a successful driving experience, and see yourself having successfully completed the session. Anxiety is only experienced when you imagine things going wrong.
This can be conscious and unconscious so you may not actually realise that you are doing this, but you do feel the physical sensations of anxiety. Thinking through the successful completion of the lesson at any time you feel nervous or anxious will help the feelings release.
When I sat my theory test this time around, my anxiety, predictably, plonked itself down next to me. Telling me I was stupid, that I would always be ‘behind’ compared to my friends. Nobody could have been more surprised than me when I looked down at the slip of paper and saw that hopeful word, ‘Pass’.
As I let out a huge, long pent-up sigh of relief from behind my mask, I finally felt that first tug of excitement about the adventures and freedom to come, just like the thousands of people who’d passed through the test centre before me over the years.
Of course, now comes the hard bit, with screens and apps replaced by stern checklists and grumpy commuters who don’t care about the L plate slapped on the test vehicle.
Speaking to UNILAD, Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at Mind, gave the following advice to anxiety sufferers currently preparing for their driving test:
Before the test itself, it’s really important to look after yourself. Try and get enough sleep, eat a balanced meal, drink enough water to stay hydrated and don’t rush.
This will all help you to have enough energy to stay alert and process what you need to do. It can also be helpful to try a breathing exercise before you start – like breathing in through your nose for four counts, holding for three counts, then breathing out through your mouth for eight counts.
If you feel under pressure or you’re worried what the examiner will think of you, try to remember that they have seen it all, and it won’t be a situation no one’s been in before.
They’re all well trained and will be able to keep you both safe. Try not to put too much pressure on yourself to pass first time either.
Passing on your first attempt isn’t necessary and, on average, the UK pass rate for driving tests is only around 46%. In fact, having a full attempt of a driving test could put you in a better place to know how it feels and what to expect next time.
When it comes to starting out as a bona fide driver, Head of Clinical Support at mental health provider Health Assured, Kayleigh Frost, has advised any anxious drivers to ensure their journeys are planned in advance, to take breaks when they need to, and to take the easiest route possible.
Once you’ve arrived at your destination, take a few minutes while inside the car to sit, breathe, and decompress.
If you leap out as soon as you’ve reached the destination, you’ll begin to associate the car with anxiety and nothing else. Slow down, sit calmly, and reconfigure how your mind feels about being in the driver’s seat.
I won’t pretend my recent leap means I’m now as cool as a cucumber, and I expect to come up against obstacles that will send my anxieties jangling all over the place like keys in a glove compartment.
However, this time around, my nerves are outweighed by the excitement of the adventures ahead. The thought of driving my mates to Alton Towers or just simply taking off for the day to explore a new city.
Anxiety is a big part of my life, but I wont let it stop me from moving forward – quite literally – with all the things I want to do with my life. And you shouldn’t either.
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone.
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