According to a study conducted by the CEA Foundation, the fear of driving, or amaxophobia, affects 28 percent of drivers. In this article, we’ll explain how to overcome it. However, firstly, we should explain that phobias are anxiety disorders, and are classified as such in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) (2014).
Sometimes, there’s a logical and healthy reason for a fear of driving. For instance, if a driver has little experience, has had a minor accident, or is experiencing great anxiety. In fact, there are many such examples. In these cases, whether the individual seeks professional help or not, their course of action will be different from if they’re suffering from driving phobia.
We’re going to examine in depth the most frequent therapies for amaxophobia. We’ll also give some general advice for reducing the fear of driving. After all, driving is a useful skill and one that gives us a great deal of independence, so we shouldn’t lose the habit.
Driving phobia is characterized by an intense, irrational, and disproportionate fear of driving. It usually appears as a result of particular events, like a traffic accident. As in all specific phobias, the sufferer avoids the object of fear because of this feeling. Moreover, it causes them clinically significant distress or impairment in vital areas important for healthy functioning.
As a general rule, and as indicated by Caballo (2002) and the Effective Psychological Treatment Guide by Pérez, Fernández, Fernández, and Amigo (2010), the most widely used (and effective) treatments for specific phobias are exposure therapy and cognitive therapy (specifically, cognitive restructuring).
Overcoming the fear of driving
As mentioned above, the two most frequent treatments in psychotherapy for overcoming the fear of driving are exposure therapy and cognitive therapy. Here, we’ll explore them separately.
Exposure therapy is the therapy par excellence when it comes to treating specific phobias. It consists of gradually exposing the sufferer to the phobic object or situation through a hierarchy of items. These range from the least to the most anxiogenic. The therapist prepares this list together with the patient.
In the case of amaxophobia, the list will contain situations related to driving. The first to overcome would be those that cause less anxiety in the patient. For example, approaching the car, sitting down and taking the wheel, and putting it into first gear. Then, they’re gradually exposed to more anxiety-producing situations. For instance, driving through areas that are increasingly difficult, first with a companion, then alone, etc.
The final objective in overcoming the fear of driving is for the individual to be able to expose themselves to a driving situation without feeling anxious. To achieve this, they must learn to resist the anxiety that the situation generates. The aim is for this resistance to finally transform into a feeling of control and mastery until the anxiety disappears.
If the therapy works, the association between the psychophysiological symptoms and the phobic stimulus will disappear. Therefore, in many cases, the best coping strategy against the fear of driving is to keep driving. However, if it’s a really disabling phobia, the sufferer should consult a professional.
Techniques for reducing anxiety
Since the objective is for the individual to experience the situation without feeling high levels of anxiety, the therapist provides complementary strategies so they can learn to reduce their anxiety. The most common are breathing techniques, relaxation techniques, and visualization of positive images.
Physiologically, anxiety is incompatible with a state of relaxation. That’s because the systems activated with the two states are different. With these aforementioned techniques, the aim is that the same stimuli (putting on the seatbelt, starting, driving in general) generate a response incompatible with anxiety. This process is known as systematic desensitization. It was first proposed by Wolpe in the 1950s.
Another tool used in psychology to overcome the fear of driving is cognitive therapy. According to Caballo (2002) and the aforementioned guide by Pérez et al. (2010), exposure therapy is the most effective therapy, but it can be combined with cognitive therapy.
This therapy frequently uses the technique of cognitive restructuring. With this process, the individual works on their maladaptive thoughts generated by fear and anxiety. As a rule, these are catastrophic and irrational in tone. For example, some patients tend to think they’ll have an accident if they go out on the road. This further adds to their fear.
The objective of cognitive restructuring is for the patient to learn to replace these kinds of catastrophic thoughts with other more realistic, adaptive, and functional ones. For example: “I’ll be able to drive without getting nervous”, “I won’t have an accident while driving”, “I can use the GPS if I get lost”, etc.
It’s extremely important to help the patient, but also to ensure that they maintain an active attitude throughout the therapeutic process.
Beyond psychological therapy: the fear of driving
Sometimes, the fear of driving doesn’t become a phobia but is restricted to certain situations. For instance, the fear of novice drivers. If this is your case, here are some general guidelines to apply that may be useful to combat your fear of driving.
Recognize your problem
The first step to solving a problem is to recognize it. So, face your fear, accept that it’s there, and don’t try to run away from it. You shouldn’t feel guilty or less worthy than anyone else.
Rationalize your fear
Fears (even more so phobias) are always associated with irrational and catastrophic thoughts. Consequently, you must try to identify what’s really causing you to feel afraid when you’re driving. For example, maybe you fear having an accident or getting lost.
Once you’ve identified the reason, try to replace your irrational thoughts with more realistic ones. Also, think about the worst that can happen. Is it really likely to happen? If it did, what possible solutions could you employ? Reflect and try to internalize your reasonings.
“Fear is cowardly, if you face it, it disappears.”
-Cisco García, Paralympic tennis player-
Take the car
This is precisely what exposure therapy is based on. Exposing yourself to your irrational fear is the only thing that’ll show you that you were wrong to be afraid. Do it gradually, escalating the situations only when you’ve reduced or eliminated your anxiety.
Avoiding driving will likely reinforce your fear. As a result, every time you want to take the car, your fear will be more intense. This means you fall into a self-reinforcing cycle, where driving becomes increasingly scary because you’re repeatedly avoiding it.
Trust in your abilities
We all possess the strength to overcome phobias. Although you may not know how to use these strengths, they’re there. You might be able to cope on your own. Alternatively, you may need the guidance of a professional.
As we mentioned earlier, don’t be afraid to ask for psychological help, especially if your fear is disabling or was born as a result of a traumatic event (such as an accident). Indeed, no one should walk the path of fear alone, so don’t be ashamed in accepting help.
“Trust is the fruit of a relationship in which you know you are loved.”
-William Paul Young-
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