Panic attacks, or brief periods of extreme fear, can be terrifying no matter when they happen, but they can be especially troubling if they happen when you’re driving.
While you might experience panic attacks more often if you have an anxiety disorder or panic disorder, they can occur even if you don’t.
But there’s hope. Panic attacks are treatable, and there are steps you can take to help relieve a panic attack that strikes while you’re behind the wheel.
Panic attacks and panic disorder belong to the broader category of anxiety disorders, but panic attacks and anxiety attacks aren’t the same.
Panic attacks often involve primarily physical symptoms that can completely disrupt what you’re doing for a short period of time. They might make you feel detached or separate from yourself or the world around you.
Unlike anxiety, panic attacks often seem to happen for no apparent reason.
Learn more about what a panic attack might feel like here.
symptoms of a panic attack
- a sudden feeling of extreme fear
- pounding heart or very rapid heartbeat
- tingling and dizziness
- feeling like you might faint
- trouble breathing or feeling as if you’re choking
- sweating and chills
- head, chest, or stomach pain
- feeling like you might lose control
- feeling like you’re going to die
Intense anxiety can involve some of the same symptoms. In fact, you might still feel like you’re having a panic attack. Anxiety may develop more slowly and involve emotional symptoms as well, such as worry, nervousness, or general distress.
It might also persist longer than a panic attack. Anxiety often causes distress, but it doesn’t always completely overwhelm you.
Having even one panic attack can make you worry about having another. It’s not uncommon to become so concerned about having more panic attacks that you alter your daily routine to prevent them.
You could have a panic attack while you’re driving for many different reasons.
Sometimes, panic attacks happen with no clear cause. However, certain factors can make panic attacks more likely, such as:
- a family history of panic disorder
- significant stress or life changes
- a recent accident or trauma, even one that’s not related to driving
If you get panic attacks from time to time, you might worry about having one again, particularly in a situation or place where you might put yourself or others in danger.
Panic attacks often stem from a fear of losing control, but having this worry may actually make it more likely you’ll experience one.
Feeling anxious, panicky, or stressed for any reason while driving doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll panic, but these factors could make an attack more likely as well.
Panic attacks can also occur in response to fear or when you’re exposed to a trigger, such as an event, sight, smell, sound, or feeling that reminds you of your fear or of a time you had a panic attack.
If you have a phobia you may be more likely to have a panic attack. For example, encountering what you’re afraid of could cause a panic attack.
This might occur with driving anxiety or a phobia of driving, or things you might encounter while driving, like bridges, tunnels, large bodies of water, or bees and other insects that you suspect could get inside your car.
To diagnose a panic attack, a mental health professional — such as a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist — will ask you to describe what you experienced, when it happened, what you were doing, and where you were.
Mental health professionals compare the symptoms you describe to those listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) to help identify panic attacks.
A panic attack itself isn’t a mental health condition, but it can happen as part of another condition, such as anxiety, social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and panic disorder, to name a few.
It’s also considered to be a specifier for some mental health conditions, including depression, PTSD, and substance misuse disorder.
If you have regular panic attacks, worry about having more, and change your daily life or behavior in order to avoid having them, you could have panic disorder. This condition is classified as an anxiety disorders in the DSM-5.
Panic disorder is very treatable, but you’ll need to see a mental health professional for an accurate diagnosis and to determine the best treatment for you.
Panic attacks can cause fear and physical symptoms. It’s not uncommon to feel like you could die, along with other unpleasant sensations.
You might have a hard time staying calm when you feel dizzy, lightheaded, or can’t catch your breath. You may need to pull over and get out of your car right away.
If you’re in a safe place, getting out of the car may help you feel less panicked in the moment, but it won’t help you address what’s causing your panic.
But what do you do if it’s not safe or possible to pull over and get out of your car? Here are several tips to help you cope with panic attacks while driving:
Use safe distractions
If you’re accustomed to driving, listening to music, podcasts, or the radio while you drive can help you focus on something besides your stressful thoughts.
If you live with anxiety or another mental health condition, music can often help you cope with distressing thoughts and emotions, and prevent panic attacks.
Try making a playlist of your favorite calming, relaxing songs or “chill” music. A lighthearted or humorous podcast or radio show can also help keep your mind off thoughts that might cause anxiety or stress.
Engage your senses
Take sour or spicy candies, gum, or something cold to drink with you when you drive somewhere. If you start to feel panicked, suck on a candy or sip your drink.
The cold liquid or sharp taste of the candy can help you regain your senses and focus on something besides your panic. Chewing gum can also help.
If you begin to feel dizzy, lightheaded, or sweaty, turn on the air conditioning or roll down your windows. The cold air on your face and hands can help ease your symptoms, and you may feel calmer.
Panic attacks can cause shortness of breath and make you feel like you’re choking. This can be scary, but try to take slow, deep breaths. Focus on breathing in and out, not on the possibility of choking.
Thinking about not being able to breathe can make it harder to catch your breath. These breathing exercises can help.
Focus on your symptoms, not the thoughts behind them
Take slow deep breaths, shake out your hands if they’re trembling, and turn on the AC if you feel hot or sweaty — or the heater if you have a chill.
Remind yourself that the physical symptoms aren’t serious and that they’ll go away in a few minutes. Try not to think about your fear. It can help to give yourself something to focus on, such as a building in the distance or a sign to look for.
Keep driving, if you can safely continue
Pushing through the fear that accompanies a panic attack can help you overcome it. Treating panic often involves the realization that however scary they seem, panic attacks don’t actually hurt you.
Driving through your panic attack can help you realize it doesn’t control you and reassure you that you can manage it without anything bad happening. This may help you feel more able to address a panic attack if you have another one.
Many people who have a panic attack never have a second one. If you do have more than one panic attack, you may want to consider reaching out to a mental health professional. Therapy can help you learn how to deal with panic attacks and address any underlying causes.
If you have repeated panic attacks, spend a lot of time worrying about having another panic attack, and begin to avoid work, school, or other places you’d usually go, you might have panic disorder.
About a third of people with panic disorder also develop agoraphobia. This condition involves an intense fear of having another panic attack and not being able to get away safely. These conditions can eventually affect your quality of life and make it difficult for you to even leave your house.
Therapy can help treat both panic disorder and agoraphobia. Here are the most common types of therapy:
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
CBT is the primary treatment for panic disorder, but adding skills training could have even more benefit.
Exposure therapy can also help you deal with panic attacks that happen because of a phobia or other feared situation. This approach involves slowly exposing yourself to what you’re afraid of with the help of a therapist.
If you fear driving, or things you might encounter while driving, such as bridges or tunnels, exposure therapy can help you learn to overcome your fear. This can reduce or eliminate panic attacks.
Online therapy may also help with panic disorder and panic attacks. A
Some medications can also help with panic attack symptoms, though they don’t address any underlying causes of panic attacks. Medications a psychiatrist might prescribe include:
- selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
- serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
Benzodiazepines can be addictive, so you’ll generally only use them for a short time. For example, they might help you manage symptoms of severe panic attacks in order to feel able to work on their underlying cause in therapy.
Panic attacks and panic disorder generally improve with treatment, and a mental health professional can help you find the treatment that works best for you.
While you’re in therapy, it’s a good idea to try and keep doing things you’d normally do, including driving. If you avoid driving out of fear of having a panic attack, you may find it even more difficult to eventually begin driving again.
Try driving short distances or on quiet roads where you can safely practice deep breathing or other relaxation techniques if you begin feeling panic symptoms. It might also help to take a trusted friend or family member with you when you drive.
Many people feel fearful or anxious when driving. If you find yourself feeling extreme fear and having physical symptoms, you may be having a panic attack.
If you’ve had a panic attack behind the wheel or worry about having one, consider talking to a therapist. Therapy can help prevent panic attacks while driving and help you develop strategies for coping with your fear about driving.