If somebody were to ask me, “Shannon, what are the top 3 things that you struggled with through your journey with anxiety, panic disorder, and agoraphobia?” Driving anxiety would definitely be on the list!
I used to experience lots of anxiety and panic while driving in cars, while riding as the passenger (especially as the passenger actually), driving far distances from my house or from a “safe” place, driving in traffic, driving on rural roads, driving on city roads, driving on roads that didn’t have a bathroom accessible, driving on roads that I had experience panic before, and the list goes on! And it wasn’t just cars, it was really anything that moved. It was trains, planes, buses, boats, you name it! Oftentimes these things led to even more anxiety because I’d convince myself that I had even less control while on these things.
And for me, driving was never the actual issue or fear. Instead, it was…
The fear of having a panic attack and not being able to handle it.
The fear of not being able to escape if I needed to. I was always convincing myself that I was trapped or on the verge of losing all control.
The fear that something bad would happen to me and I’d be too far from a safe place.
The fear of embarrassing myself in front of others.
I struggled with these fears for years! And if I could go back, there are so many things that I’d do differently that would have helped me to overcome these fears in a lot less time and with a lot less frustration. So let me share some things with you that helped me to overcome driving anxiety so that you can start overcoming it, too!
Consistently driving! I know, annoying that this is the first one on the list, or even on the list for that matter! And it’s easier said than done, right? But consistently driving is the only way you’re going to prove to your brain that being in a car or riding as a passenger isn’t dangerous. This means starting small and maybe just driving around your neighborhood for 10 or 15 minutes, or taking the train or bus just one stop. Being courageous and consistently driving is a huge part of overcoming your fears!
Not pulling over or turning around when I felt anxious or panicky. I know, another hard one! But pulling over or turning around only reinforces the idea that you’re unsafe or in danger, which simply isn’t true. When you get the urge to pull over or turn around, give yourself 10 seconds to feel what you’re feeling and to work through it. Yes, it’s going to be hard but you’re absolutely capable of hard. Staying rather than leaving is what leads to healing.
Not seeking reassurance. I called my mom or Adam nearly every time I felt the slightest bit of anxiety. Simply put, talking to them brought me comfort, but it was really a false sense of comfort. Because being on the phone with them didn’t actually make me any safer or more capable. After all, I was the one who had successfully worked through every anxious moment, not them. Just like pulling over or turning around, pause and give yourself 10 seconds to feel what you’re feeling and work through it on your own before seeking reassurance. I bet you’ll be surprised by what happens!
Not beating myself up when I turned around, or pulled over, or sought out reassurance. The reality is that doing any of these things doesn’t equal failure. Failure would look like not trying in the first place. So you got scared and made an unhelpful decision, that’s okay! You can make a more helpful decision next time. One of the biggest things that slowed my recovery and led to setbacks was beating myself up. You won’t recover without lots of self-compassion!
Not avoiding places or situations that I had once experienced panic in. For me, this meant not avoiding traffic, or highways, or city roads, or rural roads, or drive-thru’s, or particular roads that I had experienced panic attacks on before, or roads that didn’t have bathrooms nearby… So pretty much everywhere! I know that not avoiding seems like such an obvious thing, but I know how hard it is not to avoid! But know that avoiding will only reinforce your fears and the anxiety. Don’t allow previous moments to dictate your future ones! You have the skills and abilities for doing hard things.
Reminding myself of my realities. Do you spend lots of your time focused on all of the stuff that could or might happen? You know… the what-ifs, coulds, and maybes… And this is the stuff that typically ends up not even happening. Such a waste of time and energy! Instead, it’s more helpful to remind yourself of your realities (aka the actual truths of the present moment). The biggest reality that I often reminded myself of was the absolute truth that I was safe regardless of how I felt. After all, discomfort doesn’t equal danger. Sure, your feelings are valid and they might be scary, but your feelings aren’t dangerous.
Being kind and compassionate with myself and celebrating my wins. Give yourself some grace for goodness sake! You’re struggling with something that is really hard and you’re showing up every day. I know that sometimes you think and believe that you aren’t doing enough, or you suck, or you will never overcome what you’re struggling with, but these things just aren’t true. If others could really see what you successfully face every day, well, they’d think you are pretty darn amazing (because you are)! Celebrate your wins! Celebrate when you take healthy action - no matter the outcome. The more you practice being kind and compassionate with yourself, the easier your recovery journey will become.
Allowing myself to feel anxious instead of trying to push away my thoughts and feelings. I know that it sounds so incredibly silly, but one of the biggest parts of recovery is allowing yourself to feel anxious. It means allowing yourself to feel what you feel without judgement and to continue on to take healthy action. Oftentimes we convince ourselves that we can’t feel anxious because if we do, it somehow means something. So we try to fight it, or run from it, or make it go away. What if you’re feeling anxious because you’re feeling anxious? That’s a thing! Anxiety is an emotion and it’s okay to feel it. You are allowed to feel it and not have it mean anything.
Sharing what I was struggling with and asking for support. So often I felt really ashamed and embarrassed by what I was struggling with. I would convince myself that my thoughts, feelings, and fears somehow meant that I was crazy, or a weirdo, or broken, or weak, or unlovable. But you know what, we are all struggling with things and we are all deserving and worthy of support. In fact, those who support you want to support you. They are honored that they get to support you. Wouldn’t you do the same for those who you love and care for? They don’t see you as a burden because you aren’t! You are so special and you deserve support. And the people who you need in your life will stick around to support you through it all.
I challenge you to start small and take just one of these tips and work to apply it over the next week. Remember, it’s truly the small, consistent steps that lead to an incredible amount of healing!
And yes, it is possible to ride peacefully in cars, on trains, buses, planes, boats, and anything else that moves! I am proof of this! Don’t allow your fears or anxiety to dictate your path. You are in control. Take healthy action and keep proving to yourself that you’re absolutely capable.
If you’d like a little extra support from me, check out my online course, Pushing Past Your Anxious Thoughts. I offer a go at your own pace course, and also an option to take the course live with me. I hope to see you there and further support you along your recovery journey!