How To Stop Panic Attacks While Driving
Here are some tips to help you cope with having a panic attack while driving. Use Self-Talk to help shift you away from reacting with catastrophic thoughts to more helpful thinking. Do some Deep breathing to reduce feeling dizzy or lightheaded and help you feel more in control. Progressive Muscle Relaxation will help your heart slow down and reduce tension. Use Safe Distraction to shift your brain from the panic by pulling your attention out of your head and outside of your body. Use Time Projection to help you move your focus away from the danger and to a safe destination. Take breaks when driving long distances to help you relax and regain mental focus. Eat snacks to maintain healthy blood sugar levels to decrease physical and mental exhaustion and increase your ability to manage anxiety.
Panic Attacks While Driving
I am sorry if you are having panic attacks while driving your car. I know how scary this can be. Feeling anxious while driving is normal and panic attacks are commonly experienced when anxiety is high.
Driving can be risky and dangerous at times. Driving on busy highways, over bridges, at night, and in the rain can cause higher levels of stress and anxiety. What makes this worse is feeling trapped in your car with no escape.
This translates to more physical tension, faster breathing, a faster pounding heart, and thoughts of losing control that cause you to feel fearful. The fight or flight stress response kicks in and then a panic attack can quickly follow.
Panic Attack Statistics
Experiencing panic attacks while driving can be very scary. According the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) approximately 2.7% of the population or roughly 3 out of 100 people experience panic disorder each year.
What do people fear when driving?
The fear of losing control is a major cause and symptom of a panic attack. People who have panic attacks while driving, fear losing control of their vehicle, whether due to their own impulse control to maintain control of the vehicle or due to other drivers actions.
You may fear driving off the road, driving off of overpasses and bridges, and other vehicles running into you. A panic attack can also be triggered by these fearful thoughts of losing control.
You may have unwanted fearful thoughts of deliberately losing control and driving off the road or bridge. You may fear and worry about your own impulse control to keep yourself safe while driving.
After having their first panic attack while driving, many people start avoiding specific areas where the panic attack first occurred.
Soon bridges, tunnels, construction areas, any elevated roads, and driving next to big trucks are also avoided.
Panic attacks while driving can eventually lead a person to avoid driving altogether or even being a passenger in a car.
Experiencing panic attacks while driving can quickly turn into a fear of driving or a driving phobia.
What are the symptoms of a panic attack while driving?
The Fear of Driving (Driving Phobia)
Driving phobia is an intense irrational fear of driving an automobile or even just sitting in one.
Driving phobia is categorized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DMS-5) as a specific phobia that causes emotional, physical, and behavioral symptoms.
The Fear of Driving Symptoms
Shortness of breath
Feeling of choking
Numbness or tingling
Chills or hot flashes
Fleeing or running away
Freezing or being immobilized
How Are Panic Attacks Diagnosed?
There is no diagnosis of "Panic Attacks" but there is a diagnosis of Panic Disorder. Panic attacks are usually a symptoms of other anxiety disorders. However if panic attacks are experienced due to the anticipation and fear of experiencing a panic attack (Fear of Fear) then a diagnosis of Panic Disorder can be made.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5) defines Panic Disorder as recurrent and unexpected panic attacks that can be diagnosed if one or more of the following symptoms occur:
Shortness of breath
Feelings of choking
Feelings of unreality (Derealization) or feeling detached from your body (Depersonalization)
Fear of losing control or going crazy
Fear of dying
Numbness or tingling
Chills or hot flashes
These symptoms must also be followed by 1 month or more of worry about future panic attacks and unhelpful behavior aimed at trying to control it such as avoidance.
What Causes Panic Attacks While Driving?
Panic attacks while driving and the fear of driving can be caused by any number of things.
Prior accidents, driving through severe weather, losing control of the car, witnessing or hearing reports of fatal car crashes, and getting lost while driving all have the potential to cause anxiety and trigger symptoms of a panic attack.
Misinterpretation of Physical Sensations
Causes can also be simple such as low blood sugar and feeling tired. This can cause uncomfortable physical sensations that could be interpreted as internal danger, leading to a panic attack while driving.
After having the first terrifying panic attack while driving, the fear becomes having another panic attack while driving.
Driving is now associated with significant anxiety and panic so that driving even short distances or just getting into the car can trigger a panic attack.
Avoiding driving will then strengthen the fear, prolong the fear, and increase the occurrence of panic attacks.
As with most anxiety, panic attacks are related to control. Being in control of one's own physical safety and avoiding danger.
Do you hate feeling out of control or do you like it, such as when riding a roller coaster?
Control can be both a feeling and a behavior. Control is also a reflexive action that aids in our survival. Take for example losing control and slipping on ice. Your reflexive reaction will be to get control fast before you fall.
Just knowing that you will be walking on ice will motivate you to be more in control and walk carefully. It is natural for us to try and regain control when we feel out of control.
Panic attacks cause people to feel out of control. The sympathetic nervous system (Fight or Flight) is fast, automatic, and is activated mostly without our conscious control. This is why you feel out of control and fear losing control during a panic attack.
Most people attempt to gain more control or maintain control when panicking. If you are driving when a panic attack happens, you may grip the steering wheel tighter.
You become over-controlled in response to a panic while driving and your fear of losing control.
Unfortunately, this reinforces the false perception that there is danger. This can increase the level of anxiety and further fuel a panic attack.
So you are not really maintaining control, you are maintaining and reinforcing the panic attack.
When it comes to anxiety and panic, the more controlling you are, the more out of control you will feel. By increasing your level of control when anxious, the message that you are in danger gets to the sympathetic nervous system and then it works even harder.
Here Is How To Stop A Panic Attack While Driving
When listening to the radio and opening the windows doesn't work, these strategies below can be performed while driving so that you have the experience of overcoming a panic attack. This will improve your confidence in dealing with a panic attack while driving and will decrease the number of future panic attacks.
It is preferable to use these strategies while you are driving but you can also stop the car by the side of the road and perform these techniques until the panic attack subsides and then begin driving again.
1. Use Self-Talk
Use the self-talk technique at the first sign of anxiety or a panic attack. Label your feelings and state what is actually happening.
This will help shift you away from reacting with catastrophic thoughts of "OMG, OMG I'm going to lose control and die" to a more realistic response that begins to stop the anxiety.
Say to yourself:
"I am feeling scared. I am not in any real danger, this is only anxiety. A panic attack is not dangerous. It's only a false alarm."
2. Deep breathing
Deep breathing is by far is the most helpful strategy to manage and minimize the symptoms of a panic attack while driving.
Deep breathing gives you a sense of control over your body when feeling out of control during a panic attack, especially if you are hyperventilating or feeling dizzy.
Deep breathing helps correct the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels during panic attacks to reduce feeling dizzy or lightheaded.
Deep breathing works to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for producing a calm and relaxed feeling.
Deep Breathing Exercise
Inhale through your nose slowly by expanding from your belly first then fill your upper lungs for a count of 5
Hold your breath for a count of 2
Exhale slowly and forcefully through pursed lips for a count of 10
Repeat this 5 to 10 times or do it for at least 1 minut
3. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is often used in conjunction with deep breathing to overcome the fight or flight stress response of the sympathetic nervous system by activating the parasympathetic, rest and digest, system.
As you tense and then release a muscle, it has to relax. Tensing each muscle group and then relaxing causes your muscles to become more relaxed than they were before tensing. As a result the heart slows down because relaxed muscles don’t need as much oxygen.
Breathing and blood pressure also slow down. This will also help you to decrease being over-controlled and will send the message to your sympathetic nervous system that the danger has passed.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation Exercise While Driving
While driving or sitting in a stopped vehicle, begin by tensing your right hand by griping the steering wheel for a count of 5, then relax your grip for a count of 5
Tense your left hand by gripping the steering wheel for a count of 5, then relax your grip for a count of 5
Shrug your shoulders to your ears and tense for a count of 5, then relax your shoulders for a count of 5
Tense your abdomen for a count of 5, then relax for a count of 5
Tips: Focus on the difference between the tension and relaxation as this is the most important part of the exercise.
4. Safe Distraction
Distraction is helpful in providing temporary relief from the mental symptoms of a panic attack.
It causes you to stop focusing on the physical symptoms of a panic attack and the fearful thoughts about driving that fuel to a panic attack.
Distraction shifts your brain from the cycle of the panic feedback loop by pulling your attention out of your head and outside of your body.
You stop analyzing your symptoms and you start focusing on things you see in your environment, like how many colors you see while driving or how many different state license plates you can find.
Music is also a great safe distraction. You use your hearing focus on the music. You can choose music that either helps calm you or music that makes you feel strong and motivated.
5. Time Projection
You can also project your mental focus beyond the current moment or feared situation. You can focus your thoughts further ahead, when you are at your destination and feel more comfortable.
When driving over a bridge, you would focus your thoughts on the other side of the bridge and what it feels like when you are on the way down and near land.