Driving Anxiety: How to Stop Panic Attacks While Driving!

Driving Anxiety: How to Stop Panic Attacks While Driving!

Driving anxiety, or having a panic attack while driving, can be a frightening and even dangerous situation. Whether you’re an anxious new driver or you’ve been a nervous driver for years, here’s exactly how to stop panic attacks while driving:

  1. Determine the Source of Your Driving Anxiety
  2. Remember that a Panic Attack is not Dangerous
  3. Take Control of Your Breathing
  4. Roll Down the Windows for Some Fresh Air
  5. Start Slow on Side Roads
  6. Break Your Trip Down into Multiple Stages
  7. Drive with a Friend if Possible
  8. Participate in a Driver's Education Course
  9. Blast Some Music (or Turn it Off!)
  10. Focus on the Lines on the Road
  11. Play a Game of “I Spy” With Yourself
  12. Give Yourself a Larger Problem to Solve
  13. Listen to an Audiobook or Podcast
  14. Pull Over and Take a Break if Necessary

Utilizing any one of these tricks (or better yet, all of them!) can help you to quickly stop a panic attack while driving and safely return your focus to the road.  In a moment, we’ll go over each of these methods to reduce fear of driving in detail.

Just remember to use your best discretion when using any of these tricks – if it is unsafe for you to perform any of these actions while driving, don’t do it.

Now, let’s dive into how to stop panic attacks while driving!

Driving Anxiety: How to Stop Panic Attacks While Driving!

Determine the Source of Your Driving Anxiety

The first few steps on this list are a bit general and can be applied to just about any type of panic attack. Yet, they are still important to mention because they are crucial steps to stop a panic attack while driving. With that said, it’s important to determine the source of your anxiety. In this case, we already know that you have anxiety while in the car, but you’ll still want to try and narrow it down a bit.

For example: Do you have panic attacks while driving, only? Or do you also have panic attacks in the car as a passenger? Do you have panic attacks while driving on the highway, only? Or do you also have panic attacks while driving on the side roads? Does your fear of driving stem from a traumatic event? Could it be linked to another phobia such as claustrophobia or agoraphobia? Try and understand the source.

It’s important that you don’t skip over this step. Really take some time to do some critical thinking and analyze exactly what it is about driving, being in a car, or being on the road, that tends to trigger your panic attacks or driving anxiety. This is a question that you can really only answer for yourself.

Once you figure it out, we can began working towards extinguishing these fears. If, for example, you realize that you become anxious just from riding in a car as a passenger, we made need to take a few steps back before tackling your driving anxiety and work on your general fear of riding in a car. If you realize, however, that you are comfortable driving on side roads but become anxious when driving on the highway, this also tells us specifically what we need to be working on.

Anxiety is a unique and individual experience – different for every person. While investigating, you may find that you are more or less anxious when driving alone, in certain areas, at certain times, or even during specific types of weather. For now, simply take note of which situations cause you those greatest level of driving anxiety. Don’t feel as though you need to rush in and tackle these situations head-on – we can work up to it in time when you feel comfortable.

Remember that a Panic Attack is not Dangerous

This is another tip that is common to all types of panic attacks – simply put, I want you to remember that a panic attack is not dangerous. If you’re a regular on this website, you surely already know this fact and are very familiar with exactly what a panic attack is and why we experience anxiety in the first place. If not, be sure to click those aforementioned links and read up to make sure you understand the basics of panic attacks before going forward. This is especially important if you are new to panic attacks or anxiety in general.

A panic attack can occur when we are in a state of severe anxiety. During this state, the “fight or flight” response of our sympathetic nervous system is activated. In short, our brain becomes so stressed out that it falsely believes we may be in danger. Although no danger is present, our brain primes our body so that it is better able to “fight” or “flee” from our current situation. In this state we experience an unpleasant adrenaline rush that makes it hard to think logically; instead, we feel sheer panic and our emotions take over. Oftentimes, this can feel so unpleasant that we are convinced that we are going to die, that we need to escape, or that we are just going plain crazy.

The important thing to remember during any panic attack (driving or otherwise) is that a panic attack is not dangerous. Even though your heart may be pumping faster and your breathing may be rapid, you are not going to die. Furthermore, this is not going to last forever – most panic attacks last only a few moments in duration. As difficult as it may be, it is crucial to remind yourself of these facts continuously during a panic attack. It may suck, but a panic attack is not dangerous and it will be over in a matter of minutes. Just hang in there.

Take Control of Your Breathing

Okay, this is the third and last truly general tip for stopping a panic attack – but it’s just too important to leave out! After this one, the rest of the tips will be more specifically tailored to how to stop panic attacks while driving. Promise! πŸ˜‰

Just as important as reminding yourself that a panic attack is not dangerous is that you take control of your breathing. During a panic attack, one of the worst things that most of us do is hyperventilate. This is because, during a panic attack, we feel as though we are not getting enough oxygen. We panic and attempt to overcompensate by actually over-breathing! And, while oxygen is great and all, too much of anything is a bad thing. When we over-breathe, we throw our carbon dioxide levels out of whack and make the symptoms of our panic attack even worse. This is actually where the age-old imagery of a person breathing into a paper bag comes from – someone who is doing that is actually trying to regain control of their breathing by recycling their own carbon dioxide instead of sucking down even more oxygen.

Now, I’m not going to recommend you whip out a paper bag and block half of your face while driving, but it is still important that we get our breathing under control. Try and establish a normal breathing pattern – you can experiment a bit and find what works for you. Breathing for 6 seconds in and for 6 seconds out is good enough in a pinch. When you have some time away from the wheel, it’s a good idea to practice breath work on your own time. Hobbies like Yoga or Meditation tend to incorporate breath work into their classes or guided meditations; this can be a great place to start.

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Roll Down the Windows for Some Fresh Air

This step may seem a bit counterintuitive since we just discussed the trouble with over-breathing, but just hear me out. If you’re having a panic attack in the car, there are a number of reasons why rolling the windows down could help to bring you some relief.

First off, being inside of a car can be a very stiff and confining experience. We’re buckled in tightly, moving fast with limited control of our surroundings, and possibly breathing in musty, stagnant air (if the windows are up). Like hopping in an MRI machine or riding in an elevator, driving is one of those experiences that can make a person feel claustrophobic even if they are not usually prone to claustrophobia.

It may seem like such a minor action, but rolling the windows down can make a huge difference and bring some degree of relief to your panic attack. In the past, this is something I have personally found to be effective. Since this isn’t exactly a scientific solution, here’s my best guess at why it helps:

  1. The “feeling” of getting fresh air – While true that we don’t want you over-breathing, the fresh air in your lungs (versus the "stuffy" air inside a sealed car) can feel much cleaner. In turn, you’ll probably feel less inclined to be gasping like a fish out of water.
  2. The physical sensation of the wind on your face – Just like every pet dog ever, we humans have an odd love of wind in our face. Best of all, this physical sensation serves as a stimulus that can help distract our thoughts away from our panic attack a bit.
  3. Temperature change – If it’s a bit warm or if the A/C is a bit too chilly, this discomfort could also lead you to feel a bit anxious. If it’s a nice day out, the temperature might feel better outside and be more relaxing to you.

It’s important to note that, while rolling the window down can feel great for most of us, some people might benefit from doing the exact opposite. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by environmental stimuli (traffic sounds, etc.) feel free to roll the windows up for a bit and see if that helps. Just figure out what works for you.

Start Slow on Side Roads

Most of us learn how to drive for the first time from the comfort of local side roads. This is because, obviously, it is much easier for people to step out of their comfort zone and learn how to drive without the anxiety and pressure of driving on a busy, fast-paced highway. Whether you’re new to driving or have had a fear of driving for years, it’s a good idea to get some practice in from the safety and comfort of local side roads.

Unlike driving on a highway, driving on side roads is a relaxed way to gain confidence behind the wheel without being subjected to performance anxiety from other drivers. Elsewhere on this site we talk about exposure therapy, through which we attempt to conquer our fears by slowly exposing ourselves to small doses of these fears. Exposure therapy is also an excellent solution for driving anxiety, as we can start slowly and work our way up to the more stressful driving situations.

My advice with exposure therapy is to find your “growth zone.” This means challenging yourself to step outside your comfort zone without pushing yourself too hard and causing panic. With regard to driving anxiety, you will have to figure out where your growth zone lies for yourself. Hence why I recommend starting with side roads and slowly working your way up to busier streets; so that you can gain confidence over time.

comfort zone vs growth zone vs panic zone

Break Your Trip Down into Multiple Stages

Sometimes a longer drive may feel significantly more daunting to us than a short drive. This can be a mental barrier for some people that will need to be overcome.

Start by asking yourself, “Would I be anxious if I only had to drive 10 seconds down the block?” Even among anxious drivers, most people would be able to tackle such a goal.

Now ask yourself, “Could I comfortably drive for 20 minutes to get to work?” Chances are this will be a bit more difficult for most people.

If you notice that the distance to your destination (as measured in time or miles driven) plays a role in the degree of anxiety you experience, consider breaking your trip into multiple stages. Perhaps “two 10-minute drives” feels less intimidating to you than “one 20-minute drive.”

For example: Imagine you have a half-hour drive to get to a friend's house. It’s entirely possible that the thought of being stuck behind the wheel for 30 minutes is the source of your anxiety; perhaps this thought makes you feel a bit claustrophobic or “stuck.” Instead of viewing your trip as a 30-minute trip, break it down into smaller chunks. Could you handle a 10-minute car-ride – if so, break your trip into three 10-minute trips. If you need to go smaller, you can absolutely do so.

Each “stage” of your trip can end at a location where you could stop along the way if you felt you needed a break from driving. These stops could be gas stations you’re familiar with, shopping plazas, fast food restaurants, or even a relative’s house. For many people, the option to stop and take a break if necessary, while setting reasonable goals, can help them to step increasingly further out of their comfort zone and conquer their fear of driving over time.

Drive with a Friend if Possible

While tackling your driving anxiety, never feel as though you need to do so alone. If you have a trusted friend or family member available and would feel more comfortable having them in the car, absolutely take them along for the ride. Oftentimes, just having someone we can trust and talk to will help to distract us from our anxiety and calm us down during a panic attack. Additionally, if you’re with a friend who can drive, you have a wingman available and know that – in a pinch – your friend can always take over.

Even if a friend is not physically available to ride with you, you can still place a (hands-free) phone call to someone. Even from a distance, having a friend to talk to can often be enough to provide some level of comfort during a panic attack. You may wish to talk through the panic attack with your friend – or, if you prefer to keep your panic attack private, you can just talk about anything. As long as the conversation is engaging enough to distract you from your feelings of anxiety, talking to a friend is a great way to stop a panic attack.

Participate in a Driver's Education Course

Even better than having a friend in the car with you might be having a driving instructor available to help. If you're a first time driver, this is a great way to eliminate your fear of driving and gain confidence driving. If you already know how to drive but are just feeling a little bit rusty or anxious, you still might benefit from taking a Driver's Ed course. It can be helpful to have a professional support and assist you as you develop your skill and confidence. Just do a quick online search and see what options are available locally - they're usually pretty cheap.

Blast Some Music (or Turn it Off!)

Something that has always worked wonders for my anxiety has been listening to music. There is also something about music that just pairs so well with driving. The right playlist never fails to turn driving from a chore into a genuinely enjoyable and meditative experience. My suggestion to you here is that you find a good song on the radio while driving. Turn it up, roll the windows down, and just allow yourself to enjoy the experience (Actually, be careful you don’t enjoy the experience too much! I’ll admit I have a tendency to drive a bit fast while listening to particularly aggressive music).

Conversely, if you are already listening to music when you start to feel anxiety while driving, consider turning the music down or off for a while. Music can be great for anxiety, but sometimes it’s more important just to change our environment as we calm down. If music is doing nothing for your anxiety, just turn it off for a bit and enjoy a few moments of quiet to yourself.

Focus on the Lines on the Road

This one may sound a bit peculiar, but I’ve always found it relaxing to track the “lines” in the road with my eyes as I drive past them. Anyone who has been on a long road trip before knows what I’m talking about, here. After driving for a while, we tend to shift into a sort of “autopilot” mode where we are seemingly driving from muscle memory and our mind wanders elsewhere a bit – our eyes taking in the scenery around us.

If the lines in the road aren’t doing it for you, you can try and find other “focus objects” to draw part of your attention to. A focus object is anything that we concentrate on in an attempt to pull our attention away from our anxiety or panic attack. Perhaps this focus object is the taillights of the car in front of you, perhaps it’s an upcoming traffic light, or perhaps it’s a mountain in the distance. Just give your mind something to focus on besides your panic attack.

*This trick comes with a huge asterisk of course: do not do this if it is distracting to you or pulling away from your ability to focus on the road while driving!

Play a Game of “I Spy” With Yourself

Most people who had a childhood won’t need me to explain the game of “I Spy” to them, but I’ll explain it briefly in case that was just a game for us poor kids. “I Spy” is a game where someone chooses an object nearby and states the color of that object. The other player then has to survey their environment to try to identify that object. This is obviously a game meant for two or more players, but we can alter the game a bit so that you can play by yourself while driving alone.

The way I’d do it is to choose a color (ideally a color that’s hard to find like purple) and then try to find an object of that color in your environment. Alternatively, you could choose a letter and then try to find an object that matches that letter somewhere outside – you could work through the whole alphabet this way.

Okay, I’ll admit, this is not the most fun or exciting game in the world. But my point remains, I believe it could be an effective way to keep your mind busy and stop panic attacks while driving. Make your own game if you want – Geez, everyone’s a critic.

Give Yourself a Larger Problem to Solve

If crappy road trip games aren’t your thing, you could always make sure that you step into the car with a larger problem to solve. Panic attacks, at their core, occur due to our tendency to overthink. We think so much about our fears and anxieties that we slip down the rabbit hole and send ourselves into a negative thought spiral that’s hard to escape. The easiest way to pull ourselves out of such a spiral is to give our brain something else to do with all that excess energy.

Think about it this way – many of us have our deepest thoughts in the shower. This is because the shower is one of the few remaining places where we are truly alone with our thoughts – no phone, no TV, no videogames. Driving is similar to being in the shower in that, for the most part, we get some time to truly be alone with our thoughts. What we spend our time thinking about is the factor that will dictate whether we have a panic attack or some of our best ideas.

Before you hop in the car to drive somewhere, make sure you go in with a problem to solve. This can be a creative problem, or a problem related to work, relationships, etc. Put that extra mental energy and alone time to good use rather than dwelling on your fear of driving.

Listen to an Audiobook or Podcast

If you don’t have a problem of your own to solve, there’s still a way to add some creativity and productivity to your drive. Choose a good audiobook or a podcast that you follow and play that while on the road. This is one of the best methods I have for how to stop panic attacks while driving because it actually combines a handful of the other methods we’ve already talked about.

Listening to an audiobook or podcast can serve as a sort of “auditory focus object,” with the added benefit of simulating a conversation – so it can almost be like having a friend present (I know I’m not the only guy who feels like he’s close personal friends with Joe Rogan).

Not only is this going to help your drive fly by with minimal stress, it’s also an extremely productive and time-efficient way to learn cool stuff (for nerds like myself who opt for educational content).

Pull Over and Take a Break if Necessary

My final tip for stopping panic attacks while driving is just to remember that you can always pull over and take a break if necessary. I know that driving can be stressful for those with driving anxiety, but you will never be far from a spot where you can safely pull over and take a break.

You should challenge yourself to go without these breaks whenever possible, but pulling over is an option if you ever need it. Taking a break is not a sign of failure. As long as you are able to get yourself in the car and drive any distance at all, you should consider it a win. Don’t be afraid to continue reaching outside of your comfort zone and driving for longer periods and on busier roads as time goes on and you become more comfortable.

Eventually your fear of driving will be a thing of the past. You’ve got this!

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About the Author

Years of personal experience with anxiety disorders and panic attacks have led me to devise some pretty creative ways to keep my anxiety in check. In the past, anxiety and panic attacks felt like something I'd have to live with forever. Nowadays, panic attacks are a distant memory for me, and I'm free to pursue passions like writing and traveling the world. Hopefully, the information on this website can help you achieve the same. I do all the writing here myself, so don't hesitate to reach out with questions!

Tyler Ellis

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