More than 45% of Americans experience driving anxiety, and more than 35% report they feel the most anxiety while performing standard driving maneuvers. Of the individuals who experienced driving anxiety, merging onto the highways and reversing were the top driving skills that gave people the most anxiety.

What is Driving Anxiety?

Driving anxiety is classified as a phobia that can tremendously impact an individual’s mental state and daily life. This type of anxiety refers to an intense and irrational fear that is related to driving. Individuals with driving anxiety can experience emotional distress while operating a motor vehicle or will avoid specific driving situations altogether.

Is Driving Anxiety Real?

Yes! Driving anxiety is a real condition known as amaxophobia. This condition can manifest in different ways that can impact your work and social life. Driving anxiety can be caused by different factors, such as the following:

  • Sustaining an Injury (injuries) from a past accident
  • Witnessing an auto accident
  • Underlying phobias

What Causes Driving Anxiety?

There are a lot of different factors that can cause driving anxiety. Let’s explore some of these causes.

Past Negative Experiences

You may develop driving anxiety because of specific memories or previous incidents in a vehicle, such as an auto accident. You could also have driving anxiety when you’re driving through bad weather, such as fog, storms, and snow.

Existing Anxiety Disorders

If you currently have an anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder, you may experience anxiety while driving. You may have difficulty concentrating or making decisions. You could also lose confidence in your ability to operate a motor vehicle, which can contribute to anxiety.

Driving in Unfamiliar Places

If you’re driving in an unfamiliar location, it’s not uncommon to have a fear of getting or being lost. With this anxiety may come the fear of breaking down or running out of gas. These fears may increase if the sun is setting or it’s already dark.

Fear of Losing Control

Whether you’re a new driver or have been driving for a while, you can fear losing control of the vehicle. Fear of losing control of the vehicle could stem from something in the vehicle malfunctioning, causing you to lose control, which can be scary. The fear of losing control can also include a fear of causing an accident, harming others on the road, or becoming injured in an auto accident.

Fear of Traffic

Traffic can quickly give you anxiety, especially if you’re not accustomed to driving in it. As you enter the highway, you’ll notice fast-moving cars, and depending on the city, you’ll also notice multiple lanes of traffic, sometimes as many as 5 or more lanes! Crowded roads and heavy traffic can be a trigger for your anxiety.

Fear of Specific Situations

Anxiety could also be triggered by specific situations, such as driving over or on bridges, highways, or in tunnels. Factors such as speed, enclosed spaces, and heights can be a contributing issue to anxiety.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

If you have underlying anxiety disorders, you may have heightened anxiety in different situations, such as driving. You may not be able to “quiet” your mind, which means you’ll have random thoughts that race through your mind.

Negative Beliefs or Thoughts

Negative beliefs and thoughts go back to being able to quiet your mind. Beliefs such as “I’m a bad driver” only reinforce your anxiety. Try to clear your mind when driving so you can focus on the road.

Other Causes of Driving Anxiety

There’s no one cause of driving anxiety, and everyone experiences anxiety differently. However, some common causes of anxiety can include the following:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Hearing loss
  • Fear of being out of control
  • Aging
  • Claustrophobia
  • Motion sickness
  • A past auto accident (can trigger PTSD or an adjustment disorder)
  • Issues with your vision
  • Inclement weather, such as snow, fog, or heavy rain
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

What Are the Symptoms of Driving Anxiety?

Individuals who have driving anxiety may experience different symptoms that are also indicative of a panic attack. These symptoms of driving anxiety can include the following:

  • Feeling nauseous
  • A sudden and intense feeling of fear
  • Dry mouth
  • Lightheadedness or feeling faint
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating, racing heart, or trembling

What Are the Signs of Driving Anxiety?

For some drivers, driving anxiety develops over time. For other drivers, this type of anxiety can seem sudden or be caused by witnessing a traumatic event, such as an auto accident. Signs of driving anxiety can include the following:

  • Shaking
  • Avoiding driving as much as possible
  • A fear of getting hurt or dying
  • Feeling anxious when you get into a car
  • Having heart palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Experiencing panic attacks
  • Having a continuous feeling of doom
  • Being hypervigilant while driving
  • Having shortness of breath

If you have driving anxiety, you may also feel exhausted after driving, whether the trip is short or long, which can be caused by being on high alert. You may feel drained and require ample time to recover. You might go out of your way to avoid driving or being in a car, which can impact your life in different ways.

What Are the Treatment Options for People Who Have Driving Anxiety?

If you have driving anxiety, there are different treatment options available. We’ll discuss the most common treatments for driving anxiety.


Also known as talk therapy, psychotherapy can help with overcoming driving anxiety. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) states that different types of psychotherapy could help individuals identify and change specific behaviors, emotions, and thoughts. You can speak to your health physician about different therapies, including counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and mindfulness techniques.

Exposure Therapy

It’s not uncommon for health physicians to use exposure therapy, also referred to as desensitization therapy, to address specific phobias. During exposure therapy, a therapist exposes an individual to their phobia in a safe and controlled environment to help them overcome their fear.

In a 2020 study, the effects of virtual reality exposure therapy on 14 individuals who had a fear of driving were examined. The methods in this study included the following:

  • 2 preparative psychotherapy sessions
  • 5 virtual reality exposure meetings
  • A final behavioral avoidance test in actual traffic
  • A final session
  • 2 follow-up phone assessments (1 assessment after 6 weeks and another assessment after 12 weeks)

This study concluded that all participants completed driving tasks they had never completed before. 71% of the participants showed reasonable driving behavior when assessed by a driving instructor.

Other Strategies for Coping with Driving Anxiety

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle may help you with driving anxiety and the symptoms that accompany this type of anxiety. The Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) recommends individuals who experience anxiety to use the following strategies to help them cope:

  • Discussing your anxiety with close friends or relatives
  • Learning about your triggers (things that cause your anxiety) by keeping a journal
  • Remaining active by exercising, eating a balanced diet, and avoiding skipping meals
  • Avoid consuming caffeine (caffeine can trigger your anxiety symptoms)

Be advised that driving anxiety is not an official condition, which means it doesn’t appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). However, driving anxiety can impact your quality of life tremendously. Seeking support and exploring different coping mechanisms can positively impact your life and help with managing driving anxiety.

Self-Care Strategies for Driving Anxiety

Driving anxiety exists on a spectrum that ranges from mild to severe, and each case of anxiety is unique. Depending on your specific situation, the following self-care strategies may help.

Identifying Your Triggers

When you’re frightened, it’s easy to dismiss the entire situation and don’t think about it again until the situation comes up again. To help you identify your triggers, it may be beneficial to make a list of the parts of driving that frighten you the most. When making the list, arrange the items from most intense to neutral to pinpoint your most severe triggers. Examples of the items on your list can include the following:

  • Driving alone
  • Bridges
  • Heavy traffic
  • Driving at night
  • Merging into traffic on the highway (or driving on the highway in general)
  • Severe weather conditions (heavy rain, snow, ice)
  • Intersections
  • Driving in tunnels
  • Traveling with passengers or other people in general
  • Traveling through isolated areas
  • Being in control of the vehicle vs. being the passenger
  • Left-hand turns

When you understand the cause of your driving anxiety symptoms, you will be one step closer to determining how to manage them correctly.

Create a Calm Environment

Creating a calm environment in your vehicle is a lot easier than it sounds. Clean out your car so there’s not a lot of clutter around you. Turn on soothing, relaxing music, and keep an air freshener that has a calming scent, such as lavender, in your car.

Set Realistic Goals

Setting realistic goals is essential for being successful in overcoming driving anxiety. Ambition can be a great thing, but it may do more harm than good if you set unrealistic goals. If you don’t meet the goal(s) you set because they are unrealistic, depression can set in, and it will be easy to become discouraged and give up.

For this reason, it’s best to set short-term goals instead of long-term goals. The most important thing you can do is to be patient with yourself. As you complete one goal, set another realistic milestone, and as time progresses, you’ll be where you want to be.

Enroll in a Professional Driving School

It may be beneficial to enroll in a professional driving school. These schools have a lot of different resources and they can help you master different driving skills to build your confidence as a driver. You can also ask friends or relatives to accompany you when you’re driving to keep you company or be your emotional support while you drive.

Use Calming Techniques

When you feel like you’re about to panic, try different calming techniques to prevent you from having a panic attack. Different calming techniques, such as deep breathing, can help you remain calm while driving. You can try meditating before driving to help you keep calm.

Minimize Caffeine and Other Stimulants

There is a connection between caffeine and anxiety. Other stimulants, such as nicotine and over-the-counter (OTC) prescription medications, can increase your blood pressure and heart rate, and suppress your alertness, which can lead to experiencing different anxiety symptoms. If you take prescribed medications or OTC medications, read the side effects of the medications. It’s best to avoid taking medications before driving because it can worsen your anxiety.

Driving Anxiety vs. Driving Phobia

There’s a difference between driving anxiety and driving phobia. Driving anxiety is a general feeling of discomfort related to driving or being a passenger in a car. This discomfort or fear can range from mild to severe. Some individuals may experience panic attacks before operating a motor vehicle or while operating a motor vehicle. Driving anxiety can be triggered by many things, such as merging onto the highway, heavy traffic, or parallel parking.

Driving phobia on the other hand is an irrational fear of driving. This phobia can be triggered by being in the vehicle or being around cars. Individuals who have a driving phobia can become overwhelmed and have a panic attack or experience extreme anxiety when driving or being a passenger in a car. The anxiety can become severe to the point an individual will refuse to enter a vehicle, even if the person is a passenger.

Driving anxiety involves a variety of fears and discomfort. However, driving phobia is the extreme and sometimes debilitating fear that negatively impacts an individual’s life. While it’s difficult to determine how common driving anxiety is, if you experience driving anxiety, you’re not the only one! Different studies reveal that driving anxiety is a widespread disorder in modern society.

What Are the Different Types of Driving Anxiety?

Individuals who experience driving anxiety fear one or more of the following:

  • Passenger anxiety: individuals who have this type of anxiety need to be in control of the vehicle (driving) but do not like being a passenger.
  • Parking anxiety: this is the uneasy feeling of parking a vehicle in a busy parking lot or parallel parking while other people are around.
  • Fear of public transportation: some individuals have an ultimate fear of public transportation, but are often okay driving independently, such as an individual driving their vehicle
  • Highway anxiety: highway anxiety is common. Some drivers are more than happy to drive on city roads, but fear driving on a highway, especially if it’s busy. Double-lane roads can also become a problem.
  • Nighttime driving: nighttime driving anxiety is when individuals do not like driving once it gets dark and this is very common.
  • Fear of bridges and tunnels: a lot of drivers despise crossing bridges or traveling through dark tunnels, even with their headlights on during the daytime. As far as the tunnels are concerned, claustrophobia can be a contributing factor. When it comes to traveling over bridges, this fear can be due to an underlying fear of heights.
  • Fear of driving alone: some people get anxious when they think about being alone or driving alone. A fear of driving alone is worrying that if something happens, they will not have personal support or a familiar face to guide them through tough times.

What Are the Impacts of Driving Anxiety?

Driving anxiety can negatively impact your physical and mental health. Short-term issues, such as muscle tension and irritability can occur. Long-term issues, such as developing a strong fear of driving can also occur because this fear may be strong enough to cause you to skip driving altogether, which could cause you to miss important appointments and gatherings.

Common effects of living with driving anxiety can include the following:

  • Restlessness or fatigue
  • A higher risk of having an accident (if driving causes panic attacks)
  • Chronic muscle tension
  • Problems that are related to housing, financing, relationships, and employment (if an individual stops driving because of anxiety.)
  • Changes in your heart rate and stress levels
  • There is a likelihood of reduced mobility as an individual becomes more anxious about driving

Driving Anxiety vs. Having a Panic Attack While Driving

Driving anxiety and having a panic attack while driving are two different things. Driving anxiety can increase or decrease in intensity, but it’s usually lingering in the background. Panic attacks, while you’re driving, can involve sudden and intense fear, anxiety, and discomfort. Panic attacks have a clear beginning and end. Since panic attacks can happen suddenly, they can overwhelm an individual’s thoughts, behaviors, and feelings.

Signs of a panic attack can include the following:

  • Excessive sweating
  • Chest pain and tightness
  • Fear of losing control
  • Numb or tingling sensations
  • Feeling shaky
  • Having chills or feeling hot
  • Fear of passing away
  • Heart palpitations
  • Nausea or stomach discomfort
  • Feeling disconnected from your body
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Having trouble breathing
  • Experiencing shortness of breath

How to Safely Cope with Having a Panic Attack While Driving

Panic attacks are scary and can be dangerous. If you experience a panic attack while driving, you can feel uncomfortable in many ways, which can be dangerous for you and other drivers on the road. To safely deal with a panic attack while driving, you will need to take intentional, quick action.

At the first sign that you’re having a panic attack, you need to do the following:

  • Acknowledge your physical and mental sensations that are related to the panic attack
  • If you travel with certain individuals often, let them know what to do if you have a panic attack.
  • Pull over to a safe location, often to the shoulder of the road out of the way of traffic
  • Stay in your vehicle to avoid traffic
  • Turn on your hazard lights to alert other drivers and make your vehicle more visible
  • Practice healthy coping skills until the panic attack passes

The first time you experience a panic attack while driving will be frightening because of uncertainty. As you gain experience with dealing with driving anxiety and having a panic attack while driving, you can develop helpful ways to effectively reduce the symptoms of the panic attack while keeping yourself safe on the road.

Key Takeaways

Having driving anxiety can tremendously impact your ability to operate a motor vehicle and become comfortable while driving safely. There are no specific legal restrictions that pertain only to drivers with anxiety. However, you should consider doing the following if you have driving anxiety:

  • Completing a fitness to drive assessment: if you experience severe anxiety or panic attacks, it’s a good idea to assess your overall fitness to operate a motor vehicle. This assessment is an evaluation of different factors, such as your physical abilities, mental health, and any medications you are currently taking. In some scenarios, your physician may suggest restrictions or certain accommodations.
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): this type of treatment is effective for panic attacks that are related to driving and avoidance that involves gradually facing different fears while operating a motor vehicle. To help manage your driving anxiety, you should focus on what’s in front of you, and stay aware of your surroundings.
  • Notice your avoidance patterns: if you struggle with driving anxiety, it’s not uncommon for you to avoid specific situations, such as driving under or over bridges and through tunnels. You may stop driving altogether if you live in an area where there are a lot of these structures. However, gradually exposing yourself to these situations with professional assistance can help you overcome these avoidance patterns.
  • Engage in safe driving practices: if you have anxiety, you must follow safe driving practices, such as the following:
    • Stick to familiar surroundings: when you’re driving, stick to less busy roads. Choose a route, and stick to it until you are comfortable to venture out into unfamiliar territory.
    • Ensure your vehicle is safe: make sure you maintain your vehicle regularly to ensure you’re safe on the road. Performing regular maintenance on your vehicle will help mitigate unexpected breakdowns and other vehicle malfunctions.
    • Pay attention to sensory cues: don’t forget to pay attention to your sensory cues! Pay attention to how you feel when you’re driving. When you’re noticing your sensory cues, pay attention to how you see the road and how the steering wheel feels.
    • Get a disabled parking permit: if anxiety severely impacts your life, such as your mobility or energy levels, consider obtaining a disabled parking permit.

Driving anxiety doesn’t have to control your life. Seeking professional guidance can help you face your fears and address the triggers that cause your anxiety. Professional guidance can also help you determine the best ways to cope with your anxiety effectively. Always prioritize road safety and your well-being on the road. Happy driving!