Driving Anxiety


Anxiety is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Edition) as ‘anticipation of future threat’. It can range from chronic worry to full blown panic disorder – and there are varying degrees in between. Some people rarely experience anxiety. Some experience mild anxiety for their whole lives. Whilst for others, anxiety isn’t a problem until a specific event triggers it.  


Anxiety can be genetic but for many, interpretations of events and conversations during early childhood can be a major contributing factor. Children and young adults who have been taught to develop resilience from an early age are less likely to struggle with anxiety.  Life events such as career changes, house moves, pregnancy and grief can be triggers for the onset of anxiety.  

With the chaos of the past couple of years affecting almost all of us in some way it will have been almost impossible to escape even a mild sense of anxiety. Especially during those first few weeks when sales of hand sanitiser, antibacterial wipes and toilet rolls were spiralling and none of us knew quite what to expect. As life has settled into frequent lockdown situations, queuing at supermarkets, carrying antibac, frequent hand washing and social distancing has become the norm. 

Words such as ‘pandemic’, ‘testing positive’ ‘the R number’ and ‘press conference’ which at the beginning rang alarm bells, are now something we all listen out for but don’t necessarily stress about.  That mild sense of panic we experienced in the beginning should have somewhat abated into a more rational sense of responsibility and caution. 

I’m not a scientist but a therapist so here is a therapist’s simple explanation of anxiety: There are parts of our brain called the Amygdala and the Hippocampus. These receive alerts, responding to potential and perceived threats. This causes hormones and chemicals to be secreted quickly into the body to help prepare us to react to the threat.

When the Amygdala senses danger it springs into action, causing our bodies to either fight, flight or freeze.  This is when that feeling of anxiety pops up, often causing physiological symptoms such as perspiring, shaking, nausea, fast breathing, palpitations, dizziness etc – gearing our body up to deal with the threat.    

Once the amygdala realises there is no actual danger, or the danger has been dealt with. It stops firing off hormones and chemicals and the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in allowing anxiety responses to return to a normal level as we calm down. Of course the functions of the brain are way more complicated than my explanation– however space in this article didn’t lend itself to exploring the complex workings of the human brain!

In some cases, if we don’t deal with those unwanted feelings or symptoms or if we don’t understand them, we can unintentionally over-react to these fight, flight or freeze stimuli.  Our amygdala thinks we are still in danger and keeps firing off those chemicals in an attempt to keep us safe. This is when anxiety goes from being normal to being a problem – and where those feelings of anxiety just don’t seem to go away.  


Our  subconscious is extraordinarily clever.   It remembers things so we don’t have to. Like how to walk, how to talk, how to read, how to drive. Yes, once you’ve passed your test, driving will be almost second nature to you, thanks to your subconscious!  

Pathways are created for every automated behaviour or pattern and  the more we practise something, the more ingrained these pathways become.  Remember how learning your times tables seemed so difficult? You don’t practise them every day now but if I asked you what 4 x 5 is you could probably fire off the answer without thinking about it!

So if you experience a few ‘fight, flight or freeze’ episodes in quick succession, your subconscious might remember this. It will keep reminding you to be anxious by encouraging those chemicals and hormones to continue releasing.  This happens especially if there is an emotion attached to that period of anxiety. 

An  ‘anxiety’ pathway will quickly become ingrained in your subconscious as it thinks you are practising being anxious for a reason. Just as there is a ‘times tables’ pathway and a driving pathway. 

The good news is, you can overwrite negative and unhelpful pathways with positive and helpful ones – simply by practising a different way of behaving. Learning strategies to become calm and content will eventually lead to you forgetting that old anxious way of behaving and responding.

There are other ways too of dealing with anxiety. As a hypnotherapist, I help my clients dispel those hidden anxieties. Or to change the emotion attached to the initial event which caused anxiety. And more often than not, this can be dealt with simply and quickly. Not with weeks or months of therapy.  


As an ex-driving instructor, my advice when learning to drive is to get the basics right by ensuring you have a good, qualified instructor right from the start, ensuring you are a safe driver by learning to respond to a hazard – however quickly it presents itself, and then RELAX and ENJOY driving. 

It won’t be long before your good old subconscious can take over the actual mechanics of driving. You can then simply concentrate on being hazard aware and safe. If you can enjoy driving, you will be a safe, relaxed and confident road user.

And if you make a mistake, have a small bang or a scrape or another driver yells at you, just pull over safely, sit for a while and allow your mind and body to relax.  These things happen and if you take some time to rationalise it at the time and tell yourself you are still safe, that initial shock and anxiety will dissipate.       


If something like this happens while driving and you begin to feel anxious, pull over to a safe space and practise this 7/11 breathing technique. Making your exhalations longer than your inhalations stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which reduces the anxiety response.  It’s a simple exercise to do and a few repetitions will have you feeling calm and ready to drive again:

  • Breathe in to the count of 7
  • Hold your breath for the count of 2
  • Breathe out to the count of 11
  • Hold your breath for the count of 2
  • And repeat.

You can also repeat to yourself a few times:   ‘I am a safe and confident driver’


On a personal note, I developed a phobia of motorway driving after months of racing up and down the A3M visiting my terminally ill mother in hospital. It took me years to address it and this is one of the reasons I studied hypnotherapy. 

I understand now that the stress of constantly driving and the emotion attached to the situation at that time caused my subconscious to create a negative pathway.  One that kept reminding me (wrongly of course) that driving was linked to stress, death and illness.  I couldn’t understand where this phobia had appeared from. As I used to love driving and especially on motorways!  

Now I understand that there are techniques and exercises which will gradually overwrite those negative pathways and create strong positive emotions and feelings linked to driving, my enjoyment of driving has returned! 


If you are one of those people who have similar fear responses attached to driving which are causing you to avoid driving and you feel this is getting worse, please look for a reputable hypnotherapist in your area.   With ever-evolving techniques and strategies for change, hypnotherapy these days can be rapid and lasting.  A good rapid change therapist will work with their client to empower them to make positive changes without constantly needing the help of therapy.

I would suggest looking for someone who is registered with the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council. They have the most stringent training and on-going training requirements for members. 

Most hypnotherapists are working online via zoom or Google meet. This is as well as in person where possible. Online therapy is just as effective and it is usually a simple process to have clients driving around happily and confidently in a short space of time. 

I usually advise my clients to book one lesson with a qualified instructor after hypnotherapy. This is so they can practice their new confident and relaxed driving with a little backup and support.

Sarah Wade of Southsea Hypnosis

Email: sarah@southseahypnosis.co.uk
Phone: 07859 877065