What I've Learned From Living With Driving Anxiety For 16 Years

Photographed by Poppy Thorpe
A few months ago, my friend rang to ask if I could drive her to the hospital. I hesitated, my mind spiralling into a familiar panic. "Umm…"
I’d love to say that this reaction was born out of concern for my friend, but my first thought (shamefully) was not Is she okay? but rather How will I get us there?
Reluctant to admit that I was nervous about driving to a place I’d never been before, I quickly looked for excuses as to why I couldn’t take her.
Despite having my own car, I’ve been struggling with driving anxiety ever since I passed my test back in 2003. Though I’ve now reached a place where I can drive well-known routes with confidence, new journeys, motorways and multi-lane roundabouts terrify me.
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I’m not the only one suffering with this problem. Results from a poll of 2,000 drivers found that 23% of drivers felt uncomfortable on multi-lane roads and 39% were scared, nervous, uneasy or uncertain behind the wheel in general. In a recent interview, presenter Fearne Cotton revealed that she hasn’t driven on the motorway since 2017 after experiencing a panic attack at the wheel while driving with a friend.
Still, knowing that there are other people in the same boat (or car) offers little comfort when you’re turning down social outings because you’re too nervous to drive or scrabbling around for reasons why you need to take two trains and a bus rather than the work pool car to get to an important event.
Yet when I put a call out on Twitter to find other people struggling with driving anxiety, I find the stories that come back to me not just comforting, but entirely relatable. "I passed my driving test in my early 20s but didn't start driving until I turned 30 due to a change in my personal circumstances," says 34-year-old Nazma, a digital marketing manager and blogger at Nazma Knows. "I find it stressful driving to new places and motorway driving really scares me. My sat nav is set to 'avoid motorways' and for travel further out, I'll usually get public transport, an Uber or rely on friends and family who are very accustomed to giving me a lift!"
"From the start my anxiety was linked to my fear that I didn't have good spatial awareness," says Kate, a 36-year-old university lecturer who learned to drive while living in California. "I struggled to judge how close cars were to me or how well within the lines I was. I often overcompensated, driving essentially in the hard shoulder."
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When Kate had her first child in 2015, she found that driving anxiety prevented her from getting out of the house with her son, something she’s determined to conquer now that she’s back in the UK and baby number two is on the way. "What if my son cried hysterically in traffic? What if he managed to get hold of something and choke? These were some of the things that kept me from driving, which is ironic because had I just gotten myself sorted (she hadn’t transferred her Californian licence), I would have found those challenging early months of parenthood far less isolating."
I find this feeling of isolation particularly prevalent living in the countryside, where I can’t hide my driving anxiety behind the ease of the Tube or a quick walk to work. Dr Ian Nnatu, consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital North London, knows what we can do to overcome our driving anxieties. He says that the treatment of choice is exposure therapy with graded exposure to the feared scenario. "The therapist helps the patient with a hierarchy of fears which are ranked according to difficulty," explains Dr Nnatu, "starting with the relatively milder fears and moving on to the more serious ones."
Over the years, my husband and I have embarked on our own form of exposure therapy. He’s sat with me on busy motorways as I’ve shouted in panic, and calmly navigated me round multi-lane roundabouts as I’ve puffed out my anxiety like a woman in labour. At times, it’s worked. At others, it hasn’t.
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The same could be said for the refresher lessons I took in my early 20s, which gave me the confidence to get back behind the wheel – but only if that wheel was permanently attached to a car with dual controls.
Sadly, it is my career that has been most affected by my driving anxiety. The number of jobs I’ve failed to apply for because I didn’t feel confident enough to get there is, at the very least, in double figures.
In 2016, I tried hypnotherapy but was unimpressed with its results. Curious as to why my experience was unsuccessful, I speak to hypnotherapist Penelope Ling (who overcame her own driving anxiety using hypnotherapy). "Working for the past 12 years with a wide range of driving anxiety clients has shown that if they have a stressful life, if work or relationships are fraught with problems, then that needs to be addressed. In my circle of work, we call it the stress bucket. People don't realise that they can't separate their stress into different compartments," she says.
I like the idea of a stress bucket. It makes sense that I need to confront the other stresses in my life before attempting to combat my driving anxiety.
Interestingly, 80% of Penelope's clients suffering with this problem are female and while research suggests that women are more prone to anxiety than men generally, I wonder if the long-standing stereotype that women are 'bad drivers' has also contributed to so many women feeling nervous behind the wheel (and perhaps so many men feeling overconfident).
Psychologist Hope Bastine agrees that this sexist stereotype can affect women psychologically (results from an Australian study that tested this 'stereotype threat' support this view too). I'm certain that it contributes to my own anxieties around driving and I'm hopeful that, following the recent ban on harmful gender stereotypes in advertising, we may start to see the potency of such a deeply ingrained – and while we're at it, completely incorrect – notion decrease. Until then, the past 16 years have taught me that the best thing I can do for my driving anxiety is to stop feeling embarrassed by it. I’m still grappling with this idea and with the dozens of lies I've told to cover it up.
But I’ve come to realise that anxiety isn’t shameful and putting myself in situations that I find stressful or frightening on a regular basis actually proves how strong I am. Every time I push myself to embark on a new journey or take on a stretch of road that I find daunting, the faith I have in myself and my ability dramatically increases. I may never be the most confident driver, but I'll keep trying to push myself and stop feeling quite so embarrassed when I can’t.
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