Anxiety attack while driving: causes, diagnosis, treatment

anxiety attack while driving

Driving is a normal part of life for many adults and teenagers, but unfortunately, many also experience an anxiety attack while driving. It can be a stressful endeavor no matter how typical it is.

So, if you’re suffering from panic or anxiety attacks while on the road, know that you’re not alone. There are ways to cope, and it all starts with understanding more about what you’re experiencing.

Quick Breakdown

If you want a quick rundown about having an anxiety attack while driving, you can view the brief FAQ section below. Otherwise, read on to discover more about these episodes in more detail.

How do I stop anxiety attacks while driving?

You can have a safe distraction such as listening to the radio, utilize self-talk to calm and center yourself, and practice deep breathing exercises.

Why do I have anxiety while driving?

The reason behind anxiety while driving depends on the person as some of you may suffer from a phobia, are already prone to panic attacks, or have a past traumatic experience triggered by driving.

Is anxiety while driving common?

It is normal to experience anxiety when driving, but the severity of it ranges from simple apprehension to full-blown refusal to get behind the wheel.

What does an anxiety attack feel like?

Symptoms can vary, but if you’re having an anxiety attack, you may experience physical and emotional responses such as nervousness, sweating, shortness of breath, trembling, rapid heartbeat, or feeling immobilized.

The Ultimate Guide to Anxiety Attacks While Driving

The Ultimate Guide to Anxiety Attacks While Driving

Now that we’ve gone through the basics, let’s dive a little deeper and help you fully comprehend what you’re experiencing.

Anxiety and Panic Attacks: What are They?

Although many of us experience anxiety, anxiety attacks are far more difficult to manage. They are intense episodes where you experience fear or worry over ordinary situations such as driving.

As for panic attacks, they are sudden episodes where you feel an intense fear when there doesn’t seem to be any actual danger.

How Long Does an Attack Last?

How long a panic or an anxiety attack lasts depends even if it feels like it’s never ending in the moment.

The average length of a panic attack is typically a few minutes. Some attacks peak within a few seconds or within 10 minutes. There are even reports of attacks lasting for hours.

There’s no set timeline for an anxiety attack either as some can last around 20 to 30 minutes. Other times, it may go on shorter or longer.

Are Panic and Anxiety Attacks the Same?

It’s common to see “panic attack” used interchangeably with “anxiety attack”, but the two have some differences.

With an anxiety attack, it can come on gradually in anticipation of something like an event or a stressful situation. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) also doesn’t recognize anxiety attacks and instead sees them as an aspect or symptom of other psychiatric disorders.

On the other hand, panic attacks are more sudden, yet just as intense. Typically, when you feel a panic attack, you may experience overwhelming fear. Unlike with anxiety attacks, the DSM-5 recognizes panic attacks, classifying them under expected and unexpected.

When driving, you can undergo either a panic attack or an anxiety attack, but fully understanding what you’re feeling can be tough at times as the two conditions can overlap.

Causes and Symptoms of Panic and Anxiety Attacks

Despite panic and anxiety attacks differing, they do have similar triggers and symptoms.

Common Causes

Here are some typical issues that can trigger a panic attack or an anxiety attack:

  • Anxiety or panic disorders
  • Stressful situations
  • Phobias
  • Withdrawal (drugs and alcohol)
  • Caffeine consumption
  • Certain medications or supplements
  • Social situations
  • Driving
  • Traumatic experiences
  • Chronic pain or illnesses

Symptoms

When it comes to anxiety attacks, some people may feel mild to extreme symptoms. These symptoms include:

  • General distress
  • Nervousness
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Lightheadedness
  • Apprehension
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Worry
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Irritability
  • Chest and throat tightness

As for panic attacks, you’ll notice some similar symptoms, but these feelings my become overwhelming and far more intense:

  • Sweating and chills
  • Sudden extreme feeling of fear
  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Trouble breathing
  • Feeling of choking
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness
  • Trembling
  • Fear of dying or losing control

Symptoms of an Anxiety Attack While Driving

If you’re having an anxiety attack while driving, you’ll more than likely undergo many of the symptoms listed above.

More specifically, you can experience sweaty palms, making it difficult to maintain a firm hold of the wheel. You might also feel heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and excessive sweating.

Some people also undergo feelings of confusion as to where you are or where you’re going, and even apprehension about continuing to drive. Perhaps you may feel as though you’re going to get into an accident even if you haven’t started driving yet.

With panic attacks, symptoms get more intense, and you may fear complete dread and fear. This can prevent you from driving altogether as the terror can overwhelm you.

What Happens During a Panic or Anxiety Attack?

ens During a Panic or Anxiety Attack

If you’ve had a panic attack, you’ve probably mistaken it for a medical emergency such as a heart attack. This is because the physical reaction is so severe that it’s easy to believe something more life-threatening is happening.

What’s actually happening is that adrenalin is flooding your body, triggering your natural “flight or fight” response. This can lead to the typical physical symptoms of panic attacks like an accelerated heartbeat, sweating, and an irregular or rapid breathing pattern.

Your body is on full alert for seemingly no real reason. It’s as though you’re facing danger and must get out of the situation at once.

This physical reaction can also impact your eyes while driving. Your pupils can dilate, another common “flight or fight” symptom, which can make you more alert. However, the panicking may cause you to lose focus at the same time.

With an anxiety attack, it’s much the same, but there’s far more emotional symptoms such as restlessness, hesitation, and general worrying.

The physical responses like a rapid heart rate can appear, but they may not be as prominent as in the case with panic attacks.

What Causes Panic and Anxiety Attacks While Driving?

There are several reasons why you may have an episode specifically while driving.

It can be related to a trauma, recent or otherwise, you’ve had that gets triggered when you get behind the wheel. Anything can trigger you to remember a painful or fearful event in your past such as a smell or certain sound.

Driving can simply raise your stress levels, especially if you’re on the freeway or caught up in heavy traffic that can make you nervous and lead to an attack.

Perhaps you even have a family history of panic or anxiety disorders, making you more susceptible to experiencing episodes.

Of course, you can also have a general fear of driving or some type of related phobia.

Phobia-Induced Panic and Anxiety Attacks

In many cases, having a certain phobia can trigger a panic attack or an anxiety attack when you get behind the wheel.

Some people may have amaxophobia, which is a fear of riding in a vehicle. If you suffer from this, you may begin to feel an episode before you start driving.

There are other phobias that can mesh with a fear of driving. In turn, these can cause you to have an attack.

This includes claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces), dystychiphobia (fear of accidents), and even agoraphobia (fear of being trapped).

Other Medical Conditions

There are several medical issues that can cause you to experience severe anxiety when you drive.

For one thing, you might suffer from low blood sugar. This can be due to not eating, eating a meal high in sugar, or if you have diabetes or a family history of it.

You could also suffer from Binocular vision dysfunction (BVD). With BVD, your eyes have difficulty working together, which can misalign vertically, horizontally, or both the line of sight.

This can be spontaneous or related to a brain injury. It can lead to issues like double vision and other physical symptoms such as dizziness or motion sickness. This is also a trigger of anxiety attacks since you can begin to feel apprehension while driving if you can’t see properly.

Hormones can cause anxiety attacks as well. This can be hyperthyroidism (an overactive gland) or hypothyroidism (an underactive gland). Even estrogen can lead to anxiety attacks, especially in females during a fluctuation of the menstrual cycle.

Social Issues

Sometimes your anxiety attacks when you drive may not be completely related to the drive, and instead, is related to some other life event.

For example, getting a new job. This might have caused some worry or concern, and these feelings can become heightened if you’re on the way to that job.

Or perhaps you’re about to undergo a major relationship change such as a marriage.

Traumatic experiences can greatly cause panic and anxiety attacks. This includes losing a job, undergoing some other major financial hurdle, the loss of a relationship, a loved one dying, or even learning some devastating health news about yourself or someone else.

How are Panic and Anxiety Attacks Diagnosed?

How are Panic and Anxiety Attacks Diagnosed

If you think you’re suffering from panic or an anxiety attack while driving, it’s important to receive proper diagnosis. This way, you’ll be better able to treat and cope with your symptoms.

Because an attack is a symptom of something larger at play, a doctor will help you determine what’s causing your problem such as having an anxiety disorder or any other medical condition. This is mainly done by using the standards set out by the DSM-5.

Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety disorders are so commonplace to the point that about 30% of adults will suffer from one. There are numerous types too such as panic disorder, phobias, and generalized anxiety disorder.

Diagnosing Panic Disorder

To receive a panic disorder diagnosis, doctors will first rule out other issues of your panic attacks. This includes eliminating the possibility of other anxiety disorders, different medical conditions, as well as the effect of a medication, alcohol, or drug usage.

Besides that, the DSM-5 also lists these aspects that should be considered:

  • A month or more of continual fear of having a repeated attack
  • You’ve been having unexpected and frequent attacks

To diagnose you, your doctor will order tests such as blood tests, an EKG, etc. to rule out other medical conditions. There will also be a total physical exam and a psychological evaluation.

Risk factors will also be assessed during this time. Those who are more at risk include women, adults between ages 18 and 35, and those from certain family environments or with certain familial conditions.

When it comes to family environments, it’s true that people from all backgrounds can suffer from the disorder. However, there is a higher risk for children to develop anxiety that can lead to more attacks into their adulthood based on a parent exhibiting anxiety.

Speaking of family, if a close relative suffers from a panic disorder, there’s a higher risk that you will develop one as well.

Diagnosing Phobias

Since certain phobias can be the cause of your anxiety attacks, it’s important for a healthcare professional to diagnose it based on diagnostic guidelines.

They may go by the standards set by the DSM-5, or they can simply use results from a clinical interview with you, making note of your symptoms and other psychiatric and medical history.

Diagnosing Generalized Anxiety Disorder

To diagnose generalized anxiety disorder, doctor’s can order several tests such as a urine and blood tests, perform a physical exam, and conduct an extensive question and answer session to learn about your medical history.

They’ll also use psychological questionnaires and the diagnostic criteria from the DSM-5 to come to a diagnosis.

Coping Techniques and Treatment

How are Panic and Anxiety Attacks Diagnosed

Having an anxiety attack while driving can be detriment to your mental state and potentially your health. Since you’ll feel restless or scared while on the road, there’s a chance you’ll lose focus. Any loss of concentration when operating a vehicle comes with an increased risk of getting into an accident.

Of course, a good way to manage your anxiety attack is by pulling over. This gives you room to manage the episode in a stabler environment.

However, there’s always a chance that you won’t be able to pull over. In this case, you need to learn how to cope with symptoms and eventually treat the problem.

Coping with an Anxiety Attack While Driving

While driving, there are a few techniques that you can use for treatment in the moment of an attack:

  • Safe Distractions: It may seem unheard of, but there are safe distractions while on the road. Listening to your favorite talk radio, music station, or podcast is a good way to keep your mind off an attack.
  • Muscle Relaxation: Practice tensing and untensing your muscles, a process that can lead to your muscles feeling more relaxed. This can slow your heart rate to slow down and blood pressure to lower. You can do this one hand at a time, gripping and relaxing your hold on the steering wheel. From there, you can move onto the rest of your body from your shoulders down.
  • Deep Breathing: One of the most common coping methods, deep breathing exercises can help you regain control, improving oxygen levels. This is most helpful if you’re hyperventilating or feeling lightheaded. Deep breathing can lead to you feeling calmer overall.
  • Self-Talk: If you feel an oncoming attack, you can start using self-talk to quiet the otherwise panicky thoughts that can invade your mind. Positively reaffirm yourself that there is nothing wrong and that you’re safe.
  • Using a Companion: If possible, don’t drive alone. Having a companion to talk to so that you’re preoccupied with something else can help keep your mind centered on something other than panicking. If you can’t have someone in the car, then safely dial up someone on the phone, placing them on speaker or using your vehicle’s speaker system.

Managing an Attack While in Public

Managing an Attack While in Public

There are times when your anxiety can creep up on you while you’re out in public. For instance, you may be returning to your car and feel the apprehension and fear building.

If this is a regular occurrence for you, then it helps to come prepared.

For one thing, you can always have an “anxiety kit”. Inside can include items that assist you in calming down. Essential oils work wonders at this, especially if you can add some drops to a bracelet or necklace.

Have something to munch on too whether that be a snack to raise your blood sugar levels or simply some gum to keep your mind preoccupied.

If you aren’t prepared and have a panic or anxiety attack in public, then try to practice the same coping methods as though you were already in a car or alone at home.

Do some deep breathing and some progressive muscle relaxation techniques. Repeat some self-talk statements or coping statements to yourself our out loud.

If all else fails, remember to stay where you are as jumping right into a car may exasperate an already worsening situation. Find a safe place away from a crowd and too much external stimuli. Noise-cancelling headphones come in handy here as they can help you drown everything out quicker.

For those of you experiencing severe attacks, then you may need outside help whether from someone you’re with or a complete stranger. This may seem daunting, especially when you’re already feeling anxious, but it can help you in the long run.

Long-Term Treatment

For frequent panic and anxiety attacks whether mild or severe, then you should consult a healthcare professional about treatment plans.

Therapy

Managing an Attack While in Public

You can undergo therapy. Specifically, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as it’s the primary treatment for panic disorder.

This form of psychotherapy will help you better recognize negative and harmful thoughts or behavioral patterns. The therapy can help you understand your attacks, why you have them, and how to manage them fast.

There’s also exposure therapy if you’re suffering from a phobia-induced fear of driving. With this therapy, you’ll gradually face the thing you fear most such as driving. You’ll increase your exposure over time such as driving in different weather conditions, going on the freeway, driving at night, etc.

If you’re uncertain about in-person therapy, you can always attend sessions online. There’s an ever-growing wave of online therapy due to convenience for both patients and therapists.

You may feel more comfortable speaking at home than undergoing the anxiety of driving to get to your appointment in the first place.

Medications

There are a few medications that can help you manage the symptoms from your anxiety while driving as well as panic attacks.

The following are standard medication psychiatrists can prescribe:

Preventing a Panic or Anxiety Attack While Driving

Completely eliminating anxiety while driving simply isn’t done as it is normal to feel some sort of apprehension behind the wheel. Otherwise, you’ll be reckless rather than careful. Still, there are some ways you can eventually prevent a panic disorder or attack altogether.

You should seek treatment to better manage and soon eliminate the attacks. Making it a point to follow the treatment will further ensure that you won’t experience anything beyond normal when getting behind the wheel.

Practice is another good way of preventing an attack. Simply practice driving in slower zones, sticking to every safety rule as you go along. You can also search for a quieter, less traffic-prone area to practice in too.

Takeaway

Having an anxiety attack while driving can be a confusing and terrifying experience. But even so, it’s a manageable and treatable condition.

We hope our guide has helped you become more aware of your condition and encourage you to seek help if you haven’t already. In the meantime, consider trying out the many coping skills to better manage the attacks and regain control.

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