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How to curb your driving phobia

Linda Melone

Imagine you’re driving to work and find yourself stuck in traffic. You suddenly feel trapped and claustrophobic. Your mind races with irrational fears. Your heart races. Your palms sweat.

Giving in to your panic and scurrying across several lanes to reach the nearest exit may cause a crash. Even if you’re not hurt, you’ll likely see a bump up in your car insurance rates if you file a crash claim.

With or without any car insurance hassles, you now fear making the same trip to work that you’ve been making for five years. That means you’re among the estimated 19.2 million American adults who have a driving phobia.

Common fears on the road

Cruising along at high speeds, merging onto a busy highway, being stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic and being trapped on a highway and unable to exit quickly are the most common driving fears, says Frank Sileo, executive director of The Center for Psychological Enhancement in New Jersey.

“Most driving fears have something to do with control,” says Michelle Cavanaugh, a New York social worker specializing in panic disorders.

Various phobias, including fears about driving, affect nearly 9 percent of American adults and are twice as common in women as they are in men, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Why the gender difference? Tipping the balance are the genetic and hormonal makeup of women and the way women process information, says Elizabeth Lombardo, author of “A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness.”

“Women are more likely to interpret situations as ones in which they have no control,” Lombardo says.

Determining the origin of a driving phobia may be difficult. It can appear out of nowhere or can be prompted by past experiences, Sileo says.

May Yeung of Toronto, Ontario, was pregnant when she was in a car accident 20 years ago and still avoids driving on highways. “I’ve tried, but I end up freaking myself up into a panic attack,” Yeung says. “I know it’s all in my head, but I can’t control it.”

Sometimes simply witnessing a bad car accident or seeing something in the news about a crash is enough to trigger a fear, Sileo says. “Fears and phobias develop from an irrational thought that may not be based on truth,” he says.

Tips for overcoming a driving phobia

So, what can you do if you’ve got some sort of roadway phobia? Experts offer these six tips:

1. Try to help yourself. For example, drive on a highway during off-peak hours in an effort to overcome your fear. Sileo suggests having a friend or relative follow you in his or her car until you become more comfortable going solo.

2. Rate your fear on a scale of zero to 10, with 10 representing the highest level of fear, Lombardo recommends. If you’re at 7, you need to keep getting behind the wheel — even when you grow fearful — until the phobia disappears, Lombardo says.

3. Work at your own pace and comfort level. Reassure yourself that the bad things you imagine rarely or never happen.

4. Practice positive self-talk. Tell yourself: I am OK. I am safe. I am a good driver. I can enjoy driving.

5. Don’t avoid driving. “Avoiding makes it worse by reinforcing your irrational belief that you can’t drive on a highway,” Sileo says. The longer you avoid dealing with the fear, the harder it is to heal. “A fear of driving on highways may develop into fear of driving over a bridge or a driving fear in general,” Sileo says.

6. If can’t fix the phobia on your own, go to a doctor or therapist who specializes in treating panic disorders. A doctor may prescribe exposure therapy — gradual introduction of the fear-provoking situation — or anti-anxiety or depression-fighting medication. To find a therapist in your area, visit the Anxiety Disorders Association of America website or ask your physician for a referral.

“The only way to overcome the fear is to deal with it,” Lombardo says.

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