Treating Driving Phobia with Cognitive Therapy

Driving phobia is an exaggerated fear of driving or being a passenger in a vehicle. The condition is more common in women than in men, and it usually starts in the teen years.

Driving phobia is often triggered by a potentially life-threatening accident on the road. Even a minor fender-bender can lead to the formation of strong, negative associations with driving. For instance, after a car crash, one may find oneself overcome by anxiety and worries. Driving phobics often have repetitious thoughts such as “I’m going to crash,” or “What if the car in front of me swerves?” This actually causes more anxiety in the driver which can have an effect on his or her driving.

Some behaviors people with driving phobia may develop are frequent avoidance of driving, gripping the steering wheel very tightly while driving, and jerky, sudden braking. None of these behaviors is healthy because they create stress and interfere with everyday activities. The poor driving habits can also make one feel overly tense and adversely affect driving ability.

What is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy?

One commonly used treatment for people with driving phobia (and many other mental health problems) is cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Mayo Clinic’s Web site describes cognitive-behavioral therapy as a strategy that “[helps] you become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking…allow[ing] you to view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a more effective way.”

For people who have driving phobia, cognitive therapy is used to change negative thoughts and feelings related to driving.

Support for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

An article from 2003 by Townend et al. reviews the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy on two middle-aged adults with driving phobia.

The participants in the case studies were a divorced woman and a married man. The woman had experienced a car accident during the past year, and the man had spontaneously developed anxiety after driving next to a truck on a certain occasion. Both participants were in generally good mental and physical health, and both exhibited nervous behaviors while driving.

The woman being treated received sixty-three hours of treatment in a clinic while the man engaged in thirty hours of cognitive therapy (five with a therapist). Each patient discussed with a therapist the factors that contributed to their driving phobia. They also identified unhealthy thought patterns and learned to exchange them for positive, relaxing phrases. Additionally, the female participant was taught visualization and breathing control.

The cognitive-behavioral treatment was shown to be effective for both participants. The woman and the man saw an improvement in their driving phobia even three months after their last treatment session.