Treating driving anxiety originating from criticism and past failures

Marie, age 29, actually does hold a driving license, but has never really used it for anything, Marie started learning how to drive at the end of high school, and since she was relatively young for her age group the majority of her friends had already begun learning to drive before her, so by the time she was learning she had already heard much about the difficulty of driving tests and she has seen many of her friends already fail the test. As a result, when Marie took her first driving test after many lessons, she came to it with very high anxiety levels, and found herself doing mistakes she would not normally do during lessons. She failed the test, and the anxiousness and fear only grew from test to test – she made mistakes, cried, and was shaking nearly the whole time. She was about to give up on the whole thing, but with her family’s encouragement she persisted, and eventually passed on the 8th try.


Even after the test Marie continued to be anxious of driving, she though her driving skills are bad and she will eventually get into an accident. As a result she drove very slowly and showed hesitations and insecurity on the road, what led to horn honking and numerous negative comments, which only reaffirmed her belief that she is not fit to drive, until eventually she quit completely.


Throughout Marie’s life she lived in a city where there’s a good public transportation system, which allowed her to easily get by even without driving. But after a relationship with a boyfriend who lived outside the city, she suddenly found herself constricted, and so she decided to get help.


As part of the cognitive therapy Marie’s beliefs involving driving and her driving skills were examined. It turned out that Marie thinks her failure in driving tests affirms the fact that she is a bad driver and therefore is dangerous on the road. As a result when she was driving she took different actions to protect herself and other drivers – i.e. driving really slow and an endless scouring of dangers, as well as keeping excessive distance between her and other cars in front.


During therapy a differentiation was made between a state of driving and a state of examining, and Marie realized that the face she was anxious of the driving test is not an indication on her driving skills. As it turned out Marie had the same problem with written exams where she would panic and forget material she studied time and again, and it became apparent that her problem was not lack of knowledge or driving skills, but a fear of situations where her skills are being examined.


Later on in the treatment the techniques she took in order to defend herself and other passengers were examined, and she accepted that the problem was not her driving skills but rather a lack of confidence in them, and that her techniques not only didn’t help, but that they actually helped affirm her self perception as a bad driver seeing as people consequently treat her like one.


After several realizations Marie was ready to try driving again in a way different then she was used to, she was still afraid to drive alone and only agreed to drive accompanied by another person. Since Marie convinced family members and friends throughout the years that she was a dangerous driver, she assumed they would make concerned faces, warn her of potential dangers, and other things they would do while she was still driving, and so she only agreed to drive with a cognitive therapist who knew her fear thoroughly and knew how to respond to it.


In those driving sessions Marie learned to conduct herself in a different manner even though she felt afraid. The therapist asked her to drive the allowed speed limit but no slower than that, and eventually in the middle and left lane, passing cars and driving in places she would always avoid – like crowded streets. The experiences she acquired in those sessions matched the data she received in therapy and they both combined to dramatically reduce Marie’s fear of driving.


Gradually Marie felt like she could deal with driving on her own. The regularity of sessions reduced, she began practicing drives she did in sessions, but on her own and slowly added more and more difficulties like driving with people she used to be afraid of driving with before. The responses she got from her friends and family were positive, they encouraged her and stopped feeling uneasy when driving with her. Other drivers also stopped acting hostile towards her, which helped reaffirmed the feeling that she can in fact drive, and made her driving anxiety lessen and lessen, until eventually it went away completely.

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2 Responses to Treating driving anxiety originating from criticism and past failures

  1. Shawnda says:

    I know having a license will grant me more independence, time, and greater job opportunities in the future, but the thing is I’m really scare to start driving…
    It’s kind of an unexplainable fear, that I think started when I was a little girl when two of my relatives died in a car crash, and also the fact that I hear about more and more people injured on the road in the news every day. How do I snap out of it?

    • Ellen Miller says:

      I’m not an expert, but if this is a crippling fear that is inhibiting you or making you very nervous and is damaging your normal function, and you want to get over it, maybe you should consider professional therapy.
      If this is just something that is abit frightening to you because it’s new, then just dive straight in. you don’t start driving on your own anyway, just take a few lessons and see if it works for you or not.
      Good luck!

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