Why Am I Nervous About Driving?

Here is a question I received and answered on the now-defunct website AllExperts.com:

How can I stop worrying about every little thing while driving? Every time I drive and hear any noise, I think that I might have hit something. How can I stop feeling this way?

Let’s start by asking the question, “Why are you worrying so much when you drive?” There could be a number of causes.  Let’s try the next three questions.

 
  • Have you ever been in a car crash?  
  • Was someone close to you involved in a crash?
  • Did you have a really close call at some point?
If you answered yes to any of those, your driving anxiety could be caused by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the same phenomenon that happens with military veterans who return from battle.  It can happen to anyone who survives a traumatic experience or has a near-death encounter, and it could be why you’re feeling anxious.  If this might be the case, one of the best things you can do is seek out the expert counseling of a licensed psychologist.  PTSD is very treatable with professional attention.
 
If you answered no to all three questions, then perhaps your anxiety is based upon some feeling that there is something you’re missing about driving.  Sometimes, people feel this way if they don’t have a lot of training or driving experience.  Keep in mind, driving a car in traffic is a completely alien behavior to human physiology.  Think about this: your body has evolved to travel as fast as your maximum running speed.  For most of us, that’s around 7MPH.  That’s the fastest we are meant to go. At that speed, your body starts pumping adrenaline and your visual focus narrows to a small area right in front of you.  This is because, at your top speed, your brain has evolved to think you must be running from a predator, and therefore your life is in danger.  These days, tigers don’t often hunt us down, and we rarely drive as slow as 7MPH.  So, as you drive down the street, your brain may be having an evolutionary reaction and thinking, “AHHH! TIGER!!”
 
This evolutionary reaction would mean your sense of hearing is heightened, as you listen for the sound of the approaching tiger.  Your visual acuity has narrowed, so everything in your peripheral is a frightening blur whipping past at 60 feet per second.  And your blood pressure is up, as your brain readies your body for escape.  So, yeah, when you hear that strange noise outside, your brain spooks.
 
How do you combat this?  First, experience is critical.  The longer and more often you drive, the less this flight-or-fight response should overwhelm you.  Second, distract yourself a little. Turn up the music a bit more, so that you can’t hear those little sounds anymore. Third, shift your gaze around as much as you can while driving.  The more you look around, the easier it is to break that “tunnel vision” effect.  Try reading all of the signs you pass as you drive, or identifying the makes of all the cars you see.  This keeps your brain focused on driving and your surroundings, without letting it dip into prehistoric biases.
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