How I Overcame My Fear of Driving
Updated: Nov 1
I got my driver's license almost ten years ago, and I've driven so few times that I can count them on two hands. But I've gotten past this problem in the last two months, and I've just started driving everywhere! I even drove from Boston to New York City!
I want to share my journey of driving, what I did to conquer my fear.
Those of you who are afraid to drive, I hope this gives you the courage to get behind the wheel!
My Driving Anxiety
Growing up, I observed how my mom was scared of driving, so she would only drive roads she knew well. She would also avoid driving on highways, which was relative easy to do living in Budapest, because we only needed to go on a highway when we were going out of town.
Hearing about car accidents on the news and from those around me also contributed my fear of driving. One of my Chinese school teachers and one of my roommates in college have both been involved in car accidents that hurt them or their families very badly.
Then, I watched my partner learn to drive and see him get into a few small accidents in the beginning. This made me think that accidents are inevitable for new drivers. So I thought that the only way to make sure I never got into an accident was to never drive at all.
The few times I tried to drive, it was a terrible experience. One winter day, I was trying to back my car into a parking spot on the side of the road when my right back tire hit the sidewalk and went flat. My partner and I looked up how to change tires on YouTube and then spent an hour in the cold wind (without gloves) changing the tire. Another time, I was driving in the city and a person was trying to cross the street, but I didn't see him because the right side of the car was blocking my view.
When I finally spotted him from the windshield, I stopped right away. He overreacted by slamming his hands on the hardtop of my Mini Cooper and shouting some angry words I didn't understand. That scared me so much that I stopped driving.
The Tipping Point: One day, I decided to drive
My phobia of driving has grown worse with time. Whenever my partner encouraged me to drive, I would come up with excuses not to drive, like "I'm not feeling 100% today," "it's too dark," "it's pouring," and so on. Basically, in my mind, the circumstances had to be perfect for me to drive: I had to be physically and mentally feeling my best and the weather conditions also had to be perfect. Of course, based on this standard, I would never drive.
I also became scared just to sit in the car. Just the thought of having to go somewhere with the car made me tense. I realized that my anxiety of being in a car has started to take a toll on my quality of life and well-being. Because of the distracting thoughts of having to ride in a car to and from events, I was unable to look forward to going out with friends or really enjoy the activity itself.
One day, I finally wanted to make a change, so I decided to seek for help.
I initially thought of my driving anxiety as a mental issue that needed to be addressed via treatment. Fortunately, after some investigation, I found various useful articles and YouTube videos on how to overcome driving anxiety (CBT for driving anxiety, DRIVING PHOBIA treatment in 6 steps, etc.) on ways to overcome driving anxiety. I decided to put what I learnt into action.
I officially committed to driving around two months ago. In the first month, I always drove with my partner in the car. I started with some simple and short routes and practiced those until I got comfortable. I then progressed to routes with more difficult conditions and longer distances. After less than a week of practice, I was able to drive from Boston all the way to New York City (although my fingers hurt a lot from grabbing the wheel too firmly)! That was my first long-distance drive and it gave me much confidence in my driving abilities.
I reached another significant milestone in the second month. After considerable internal debate over whether I should drive or take public transportation, and after attempting to remember the route on Google Map the night before, I ultimately decided to drive to work. That was my first time driving alone since getting my license! I felt like a genuine driver and was quite proud of myself.
Last week, I also went to a suburb at night on the highway and parallel parked many times (after multiple attempts) in the city.
After driving for the past two months, I'm glad to say I'm now rather comfortable driving about the city. When I merge onto the highway, my heart rate still rises somewhat, but I accept it since it doesn't prevent me from driving safely. I still make mistakes, like not merging into the appropriate lane early enough and missing exits. But I have faith in myself that I will eventually arrive safely at my destination.
Throughout my journey, I tried a variety of techniques to help me overcome my fear and I want to share some of the most effective tips with you. I hope these tips help you overcome your fears as well!
💡 List the Benefits of Being Able to Drive
To motivate myself to start driving, I made a list of all the advantages of being able to drive:
I can go to work (with free garage parking spot) and other locations faster than if I took public transportation.
I'll feel safer driving than taking public transportation at night.
When it rains and it is chilly in the winter, it will be more pleasant to commute.
If I drive, I can easily transport more items (for example, groceries, exercise clothing, and an additional pair of shoes).
I can drive my family and friends when they need a ride.
💡 List your specific fears & re-frame your thoughts
Here are some examples of my concerns and how I re-framed them in my mind:
Fear #1: Other drivers may smash into me even if I drive completely well and follow all the rules.
Re-frame: We're all in this together as drivers on the road. I believe that most drivers cherish their lives and will make every effort to drive safely.
Fear #2: I will cause inconvenience for others on the road (e.g. when I drive too slow, or take too long to park, etc.).
Re-frame: Most people are friendly and sympathetic since they were once new drivers as well. Even if they show their displeasure and honk at me, it is what they are choosing to do. I know I'm doing my best and understand that this is all part of the process of becoming comfortable with driving.
Fear #3: I'm afraid I will take the wrong route in confusing crossroads or not being able to merge to the right lane to make the right exit.
Re-frame: Even if I take the incorrect road or miss an exit, I can always turn around and/or take the longer route. I can leave early in order to arrive on time. I can always look at the map ahead of time to acquaint myself with the route.
💡 Find Ways to Relax
Before starting to drive, take a few slow and deep breaths. This will physically make you feel relaxed. Again do this breathing exercise whenever you start to panic during the drive.
Put on some calming music to help to make you feel more relaxed.
Finally, be your own best friend and encourage yourself when needed. For example, whenever you get scared, tell yourself: "I can do this!".
💡 Document your Progress and Celebrate Milestones
Each time you drive, write down the date you drove and where you went to and from.
Examining your driving record will offer evidence that you have successfully completed X number of drives and will urge you to continue driving if you have any setbacks and wish to quit driving again.
Every time you hit a significant milestone, reward yourself with a small celebration. For instance, the first time you drove yourself to work, the first time you drove on the highway, and the first time you successfully parallel parked in a tight spot.
💡 Set Goals & Take One Step at a Time
For most of us, our ultimate goal of driving is to be comfortable driving on any road under any kind of circumstances. To get started, you want to first set an easy goal and gradually make it more challenging once you get comfortable with each goal.
For example, start by driving to a nearby destination that you often go (e.g. grocery store) to during daytime with good weather and light traffic. Then practice this route several times until you are very comfortable with it before moving to driving to a destination further away, a more complex route or during night time or periods with heavy traffic.
💡 Don't Aim for Perfection
Plan on making mistakes. Even if you try hard not to make mistakes, you will make a lot of them. You will go the wrong way on a one-way street, miss an exit and have to drive an extra 20 minutes to get back on track, switch lanes too quickly, scaring other drivers who will honk at you, and have to make an emergency stop. All of these are normal things that happen when you drive. Even drivers who have been driving for a long time can make mistakes. In reality, nobody can drive perfectly, so don't expect too much of yourself. Assume you'll make these mistakes, learn from them, and have faith that you'll be able to get out safely and reach your goal.
💡Talk to Others About your Fears
I found that talking to my friends about my fear of driving has made me feel less alone in this experience. To my surprise, most of my friends who drive have admitted that they were also very scared when they started to drive. Each had their own stories of what motivated them to really start driving.
💡 Once You Start Driving, Continue to Drive Whenever You Can and Don't Stop.
I made the mistake of starting to drive and then stopping. This happened over and over again for many years. Every time I stop driving for a long time and then try again, my anxiety just comes back, and it's like I'm back to the beginning. This is why, even 8 years after I got my license, I was just as scared as I was when I first got it.
So once you decided you are going to start driving, look for every opportunity in your daily life to practice driving. Drive as much as you can, and don't stop for long periods of time before you begin to feel comfortable behind the wheels.
I hope my journey of overcoming my fear of driving and the tips will help you gradually feel comfortable driving!
If after seeing and trying the above tips, you still don't feel comfortable to start driving, please seek help from mental health professionals or take extra driving lessons to brush up your skills!
Ultimately, I hope you can have fun driving, be able to enjoy the time you will save, all the new places you will explore, and most importantly, drive safely! :)
Try out at least one of the tips offered in this article and start driving!
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