As somebody who lives with panic disorder and who has been talking to people about their own panic disorders for 20 years, I know that one of the biggest issues those of us living with panic attacks face, is the fear of losing control while driving.
I completely understand this fear. I lived it. When you are overly sensitized from stress and you are prone to breaking out into a panic at seemingly random times, the idea of being cooped up inside a moving vehicle that you have to remain completely in control of can seem like a less than pleasant experience. Years ago, I quit driving for a few months because of it, and I became completely dependent on friends and family to take me everywhere I wanted to go. Whether it was to work, the grocery store, the mall…they drove me.
As you can imagine, this was an awful way to live. I don’t like being dependent on other people. It made me feel helpless and weak. It made me feel ashamed. And I think the worst feeling of all was that it made me feel like I was not like everybody else. I had lost my sense of being “normal”. I would stand at the door and watch the cars go by and see everybody out living their lives, and feel as though I were trapped down a rabbit hole, unable to go out and live life and completely unable to explain why.
The idea that I might start panicking while behind the wheel was terrifying to me. I thought I might cause my death, or the death of somebody else, or that somebody might see me losing my mind at a stoplight and I would be humiliated. These fears were loud and unrelenting.
I stayed in this mindset for a while until one day I just decided it was time to conquer my fear. Disgust is my biggest motivator and I was disgusted at my situation. I couldn’t live that way anymore. I had to get over it.
I started out by sitting in my car. I didn’t put the keys in the ignition, I didn’t plan on going anywhere. I just sat in my car in the driveway for about fifteen minutes every day.
After a week or so of this, I then started sitting in the car everyday with the car running. I still didn’t go anywhere. I just sat there in the car.
A week later, I backed out of the driveway and then pulled back in several times.
A week after that, I would back out of the driveway and drive about ten feet before going back to the driveway and doing it again.
Do you see where I am going with this?
I slowly desensitized myself to the idea of driving. I quite literally inched my way back into it. I did it in a painfully slow way so that I didn’t overwhelm myself and so that I wanted to move faster than I was. I wanted to WANT to try to go further. I wanted to WANT to drive. And the more I accomplished, the more I wanted to accomplish. It worked out very well. I am not sure what the neighbors thought, but I didn’t care at that point. I was sick of caring what people thought. I just wanted to drive.
Once I found the courage to get back on the road, that didn’t necessarily mean that I wasn’t going to panic. If you can have a panic attack once, you can have one again. So I put together a huge mental list of ways to cope with my panic, should it ever come on, and just having these ideas tucked away in the back of my mind has been a tremendous source of comfort to me over the years. Whether your driving related anxiety and panic issues are as severe as mine were or not, these ideas may be of benefit to you.
1. Pull Over
I know that for those of us who live with anxiety, pulling over is often looked at as taking a “Walk of Shame”, but honestly, its okay!
People pull over all the time…to discipline their kids, to clean up spills, find a lit cigarette, to take a quick nap, to look at a map. Yet for some reason those of us who need to calm down, feel like there is something wrong with us if we do it.
I say go for it! Pull that car off to the side of the road, or into a nearby parking lot. Give yourself permission to make this choice without a sense of shame. Don’t worry about losing control and crashing your car while looking for a safe spot – the chances of that happening are minuscule! Adrenaline is there to help us stay focused, keep us aware of our surroundings, and stay safe. Take some deep breaths as you use that adrenaline to find a safe place to pull over, and then continue breathing and speaking to yourself in a slow, calm, reassuring manner. Which brings me to #2.
2. Deep Breathe/Slow Your Breathing Down
Whether you choose to pull over or not, deep breathing is a wonderful tool to use if you are panicking while driving.
Slowly breath in for 7 seconds, then slowly breath out for 7 seconds. As you exhale, think of a calming mantra such as the word “Calm”.
Really focus on each inhale and exhale. Focus on the sensation of cool air coming in, and warm air being blown out.
To maximize the relaxation benefits from this exercise, always try to extend the pause at the end of each exhale for as long as you comfortably can.
3. Yell and/or Get Excited About Your Panic
I know this may seem counter productive. But think about it: screaming and adrenaline go hand in hand.
What do you do when you see a lion coming at you?
What do you do when you are on a roller coaster?
What do you do when you see your favorite rock band?
Adrenaline is usually accompanied by an urge to make NOISE because back in the caveman days, this is how we scared off the predators, and we never lost the primal instinct to do it.
But when we are having a panic attack, we usually keep our noise in. We don’t want others to know we feel out of control. We don’t want to call attention to ourselves. We want the panic to go away, so we don’t interact with it or let ourselves go “wild” with it. I completely understand all the reasons why we are so quiet about our panic, but honestly, we aren’t doing ourselves any favors.
Holding in that primal urge to make noise can actually contribute to panic lasting longer.
I am not saying you have to scream in a way that makes a spectacle, but if you are in your car among people you feel comfortable with, let yourself yell out a big “Woo! Here we go!” , or just yell as loud as you can. It’s not easy to do when you are sitting at a stoplight not wanting to catch the attention of the people in the car next to you, but it can be done! I have mastered the art of keeping the windows up, maintaining a calm face, and screaming without anybody in other cars being aware that is what I am doing. If it really makes you uncomfortable though, just wait until there are no cars around and make some noise then. This can help send the message to your brain that you are handling whatever danger you are in and that you are scaring away “the predator”. In addition, it is a great stress releaser. All of these things can help your brain shut off the adrenaline and help you feel calmer, more powerful, and in control.
Singing is a great way to control panic simply because it makes you feel good to sing a song you like. It’s a great distractor. But also, most songs force you to slow down and control your breathing, and again, it’s a great release to make some noise when you are being flooded with adrenaline.
5. Think of a Happy Memory
As complex and scary as panic attacks feel, stopping one is usually a simple matter of getting your mind on something that interests you more than your fear.
Happy memories hold great interest to all of us and they are a fantastic resource to tap into when you feel your fear getting out of control. When you start to feel that build up of fear, don’t over-analyze it. Simply switch gears and start describing to yourself, in your head or out loud, all the details of what made one of your happy memories so happy.
You can also think of one of your most embarrassing memories. Those of us with anxiety find our embarrassing memories VERY interesting. They pull us right in as we start to remember how awful we felt and how we wish we could rewind the entire moment so it never happened.
Does it sound fun to focus on how embarrassed we were the day we fell in the cafeteria?
But is it better than panicking?
I’d say so.
Try your best to keep your sense of humor about you, even if you have to fake it, as you focus on your embarrassing moment for a few minutes. Give your brain time to get engaged with this line of thinking, and it will soon forget about fear and start focusing on that. It won’t be instantaneous, but it will happen.
6. Talk to Somebody in the Car With You
Usually my kids are in the car with me while I am driving, and if I feel myself starting to get worked up, I yell out, “Talk to me guys. Ask me some questions about my life.” They understand my history with anxiety and know that when I say this, I am asking them to help get my mind out of my head and into conversation. They ask me questions about my childhood or what I like to eat….anything that takes me away from the fear center of my brain and into a more positive area.
If there is somebody in the car with you, explain that you are feeling a little anxious and that you would like to talk to take your mind off of it. If that seems like a difficult or embarrassing thing to do, remind yourself that feeling anxious is a perfectly normal feeling, and one that the person you are talking to is likely to have experienced many times in their own life. They are sure to understand and be glad to help you.
Now, when you first start this conversation with your kids, or whomever is in the car with you, it will feel like it is not going to help distract you from your panic. But trust me when I say that your brain will latch onto what interests it, and it WILL attach its train of thought to something you are talking about at some point. Believe it.
7. Look at Your Surroundings
Panic attacks are a sure indicator that your thoughts have left your “reality” and landed in your imagination. It feels as though something horrible is about to happen. We have no idea what it is so we imagine all the things it could be. We think we are dying, or having a heart attack or a “nervous breakdown”. We wonder if we are on the verge of passing out. All of this danger isn’t real, of course. It only exists in our mind, so the best way to forget about it – is to get out of our heads.
Look at what is around you. Look at the trees, roll the window down and smell the air. Take note of the road you are on and the cars around you. Feel the steering wheel under your hands. Pay attention to what is REAL, not the plot lines that are being concocted in your mind.
I have a favorite comedian, Jim Gaffigan, and if I need a distraction, I put him on while I am driving. Your brain can’t be happy and scared at the same time. It uses two completely different parts of the brain. So if you are in fear town, say goodbye and go to funny town.
9. Herbal Tea
I almost always keep decaf chamomile herbal tea with me when I am on the road. The herbs help me feel nice and relaxed and so does the hot temperature of the tea. It warms me right up and helps keep me feeling calm.
10. Talk Your Way Through Your Panic
When you are having a panic attack, you have got to be your own best friend. You have to dig deep and use your wisdom, common sense, and maturity to talk yourself through your panic and stay calm.
This is not easy to do. I know this. I am not in any way trying to simplify your panic attacks or make them seem like they aren’t “real”. However, just because they are real, that doesn’t mean they are out of your control.
Panic attacks are always under your control. Remind yourself of this when you are panicking and never allow yourself to get into “Oh no, what is happening? I will never get this under control!” type of thinking. That is what feeds panic.
Skip questions of any kind while panicking, and stick with strong, confident statements such as:
- I am in control.
- I will be fine.
- I can do this. This will pass.
- I am calm and relaxed.
These types of statements reassure and calm your brain and help it realize that you are in control of your situation and don’t need any “help” in the form of adrenaline. Keep up this talk for a few minutes….don’t give up…and accompany it with calming breaths. Your brain will catch on and lower your output of adrenaline, which will help reduce your level of panic.
Most importantly, do not ever be down on yourself for feeling panicky about driving.
You are a kind, compassionate, caring person. Of course you care about the safety of yourself and others! Be patient with yourself and do the best you can. That is all you can do. You will get there when you get there – when the time is right for YOU.
For more information on panic and anxiety please visit the ADAA.