Fears and phobias are part of our daily life. In fact, it’s estimated that 12.5 percent of Americans will experience a specific phobia, like a driving phobia.
While it might seem logical to link the fear of driving to a car accident, there are other reasons you may feel fear and anxiety when getting into a car.
A fear of driving a car, also referred to as amaxophobia, ochophobia, motorphobia, or hamaxophobia, is a type of phobia that results in a persistent and intense fear of driving or riding in a vehicle.
According to Paul Greene, PhD, a psychologist and director of the Manhattan Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a driving phobia is characterized by significant distress at the prospect of driving, as well as fear-based efforts to avoid driving.
Some people experience distress or fear while being a passenger in a car, while others fear driving in specific situations, such as driving over a bridge, through a tunnel, at night, at high speeds, changing lanes, or merging.
Regardless of the driving scenario, Brian Wind, PhD, a clinical psychologist at JourneyPure, says most often, people are afraid to drive because they fear something negative will happen.
Moreover, this intense fear is often more significant and debilitating than the fear or worry caused by general stress or anxiety. When left untreated, this fear can disrupt daily routines and contribute to other long-term health conditions.
While the distress or fear of driving happens for a variety of reasons, Greene says one of the more common causes is the fear of having a panic attack while driving.
“Sometimes, people have a panic attack when driving and then have a significant fear of that happening again. This leads some people to stop driving altogether,” he said.
According to Wind, some other causes include:
- past experiences of car accidents
- being lost
- traveling through heavy traffic
- watching a bad car accident on television
- having someone you know experience an accident
- a lack of trust in your driving skills
The most common symptom of a driving phobia, says Greene, includes a marked distress or avoidance around driving.
Additionally, you may feel or experience any of the following symptoms, which are often similar to general anxiety symptoms:
- panic and fear, which is often excessive, persistent, and unreasonable
- strong desire to get away from the car
- sweaty palms
- shortness of breath
- racing heartbeat
- rapid breathing
Like other phobias, driving phobia often requires treatment from a psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist trained in this area. A mental health provider can help you develop a treatment plan that may include psychotherapy, medication, or support groups.
Not sure where to start? Here are a few links to help you locate a therapist in your area that can treat phobias:
You may want to seek a consultation with a mental health provider experienced in the treatment of phobias and anxiety. If your concern is having a panic attack when driving, Greene says to find a provider who has experience treating panic disorder.
A therapist will recommend a variety of treatment options for a driving phobia, which may include psychotherapy, medication, support groups, or a combination of all three. Psychotherapy is often the first line of defense for severe driving anxiety or phobia. Several modalities can treat phobias, but some are recommended more than others.
According to Wind, exposure therapy is one of the most effective ways to treat a fear of driving. It encourages people to get comfortable with driving and become more confident about not losing control of the car.
The goal of exposure therapy is to help you confront your fears related to driving, either as the driver or passenger.
One small 2018 study found that virtual reality exposure for fear of driving can decrease anxiety. After evaluating the eight subjects (all had driving phobia as their only diagnosis), researchers concluded that virtual reality exposure therapy can play a useful role in the management of driving phobias.
Other modalities, such as individual therapy and psychoeducational therapy, can also complement exposure therapy to help you learn to manage your fears.
Your therapist may also recommend cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps you identify distorted thinking and its role in creating fear and other issues.
During CBT sessions with a therapist, you’ll learn new ways to cope with the fear of driving. The overall goal is to eliminate the panic, anxiety, and negative thinking so that you feel safe driving or as a passenger in a car.
Behavioral treatment can help you manage a driving phobia. “Treatment often involves exercises called ‘exposures’ that involve becoming gradually more comfortable with the situations associated with the phobia,” he explained.
Typically, these are either driving scenarios or physical sensations experienced when driving. Since treatment is often effective, it’s important to seek help right away.
Not only does a driving phobia limit your daily activities, but living with a specific phobia could also increase your risk of developing certain health conditions such as heart, respiratory, cardiac, and vascular disease, according to a 2016 study.
To mitigate this risk, researchers suggest therapy as a way to manage your phobia.
A driving phobia, like other specific phobias, can interfere with your daily routine and affect your quality of life. The good news: It’s possible to learn how to be comfortable with driving.
If you notice anxiety, fear, or panic while driving or as a passenger in a car, make an appointment with your doctor or a mental health provider who has experience diagnosing and treating phobias.