Are Driving Fears ‘All in Your Head?’ Yes and No

fear in head“It’s all in your head,” can be a colossally annoying phrase you hear again and again with regard to your driving fears. Sure, you may realize on a logical level that any traumatic driving­-related memories that contribute to your fear are all in your mind. You may also understand that the feeling of impending doom you may get while driving is also entirely concocted by your brain.

But some of the symptoms you can get from all these horrific thoughts hit you on a physical level, making them very “real” indeed.

Symptoms of Anxiety

The physical symptoms may arise from your thoughts, but there’s no arguing that both your mind and your body are succumbing to an array of reactions. Mayo Clinic outlines a host of symptoms that can come with anxiety.

Symptoms in Your Head

  • Feelings of apprehension
  • Feeling powerless
  • Sense of impending doom or danger
  • Sense of panic
  • Feeling weak or fatigued

Symptoms in Your Body

  • Increased heart rate
  • Rapid breathing, aka hyperventilation
  • Trembling
  • Sweating

Symptoms of a Full-Blown Panic Attack

Panic attacks fall into the category of panic disorder, which is a type of anxiety disorder that can come with even more severe physical symptoms. Harvard Health offers up a list of possible symptoms, some of which are the same as other forms of anxiety.

Symptoms in Your Head

  • Sudden feelings of apprehension, fear or terror
  • Sudden sense of impending doom or danger
  • Sudden sense of panic
  • Feeling like you’re going crazy or losing your mind
  • Sense of choking or being smothered
  • Feeling like you’re about to die

Symptoms in Your Body

  • Heart palpitations
  • Hyperventilation
  • Chest pain
  • Trembling
  • Breathlessness, shortness of breath
  • Hot flashes or chills
  • Dizziness or faintness
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Headache
  • Tightness in the throat and trouble swallowing

Additional Side Effects

The memory of how awful a panic attack is can also anchor itself in your brain, resulting in a constant fear of having another attack. Harvard Health notes this phenomenon is known as “anticipatory anxiety,” since it stems from your anticipation of having another panic attack.

Such anticipatory anxiety can become powerful enough to create new fears and phobias for you, particularly agoraphobia. Your fear of having another panic attack at various places can lead you to start avoiding those places. There goes your driving, along with your trips to the supermarket, friends’ houses, work! – anywhere you think a panic attack might happen.

All this panic can also lead to other detriments to your quality of life and well-being. The anticipatory fear of an upcoming panic attack can become severe enough to run your entire life, so each moment is a lesson in terror.

You may start to develop other phobias in addition to agoraphobia, with each fear having a potential impact on your life. You may become depressed, start to harbor suicidal thoughts, begin to experience financial difficulties or start turning to drugs or alcohol to escape these fears.

Like the physical symptoms of driving fear, anxiety and panic attacks, many of these complications are also very real indeed.

‘Real’ vs. ‘Imaginary’ 

Now onto the ‘reality’ of fears. Fear is basically something your brain creates, often in reaction to what it perceives as danger. The key here is perception, since everyone perceives things differently.

Fears can be rational when the danger is life-threatening or obvious, such as the fear that sprouts if you happen to be lying on a board with a guillotine blade poised above your neck. Or fears can be irrational when there is no life-threatening danger in reality – despite your mind’s perception that there is.

A couple of catchy phrases kicked around recovery circles can help you realize the “imaginary” nature of fear. 

F.E.A.R. = False Evidence Appearing Real

Feelings are not facts

The fear of driving gets a bit complicated, as it can include real dangers that may occur on the road, such as a semi barreling at your front bumper. But it can also hit when none of those real dangers are present.

Cyclist Greta Neimanas offers an insightful take on fears in her “Cycling Illustrated” article, a take she borrowed from a movie preview.

“Fear is concocted in our heads from our own ideas – like an imaginary friend,” she says. “Danger and risk are certainly real but fear is not.”

She then applied this concept to bike races, and you can use it with your driving fears. Neimanas noted that of course she experiences some fear when racing, as it comes with the inherent dangers of wet roads, rambling traffic, steep hills and other real dangers.

The same can apply to driving fears, which share many of the same dangers as cycling. But instead of letting those dangers create fears that stop her from racing, Neimanas instead looks at risk vs. reward.

Perhaps driving to the supermarket carries various risks for you, but being independent and buying broccoli when you need it could make the reward worth the risk. It all depends on how badly you want the broccoli.

She also focuses on the faith she has in her cycling abilities and tries testing the limits to see how far she can take them safely.

“Pushing the limits is how you find out where they are,” Neimanas writes. “You learn how hard you can corner on your race wheels versus your training wheels or at a given tire pressure and you very quickly learn how hard you can’t. After that you can consider your fear conquered because you know where the limit is.” 

Perhaps your limit for now is driving to the supermarket, or even just getting into the car and sitting behind the wheel. Limits can always be increased through trial. And although you may end up with some error, you’ll never know what they are in the first place unless you give the trial a go.

Photo Credit: AlicePopkorn via Compfight cc