Anxiety Driving on Highways is One of the Most Common Forms of Driving Anxiety, But Avoiding Highways is Not the Answer
It even looks intimidating, doesn’t it? It’s like a giant steel river, and every vehicle is a twig being swept along in a raging current. No wonder anxiety about driving on highways is one of the most common forms of driving fear.
Unfortunately, highways are now a fact of life. Avoiding them due to anxiety is not always possible. If you live in a densely populated area, being unable to drive on a highway can be crippling. Going miles out of your way to avoid the highway is just not an option for many people. So how do you begin to overcome this very common type of driving anxiety?
Let’s break it down by the 3 main problems people tend to have:
1). Merging Onto the Highway
Merging, especially in heavy traffic, can feel claustrophobic and threatening. Many people feel dangerously exposed sweeping into a flood of highway traffic from some small tributary interchange. There’s definitely a confrontational aspect to highway driving, and it’s most intense while trying to navigate your way into the current. Highways demand a certain level of driving skill and the ability not to back down (see How to Make Freeway Merging Less Scary).
Check out this non-driving New Yorker’s story about moving to the Bay Area in California. I lived in San Francisco for 2 years and I SO identify with what she says here:
The only way she overcame her fear was to confront it. And she needed a lot of help to do it too. Learning to confront our driving anxiety is a common theme for successful recovery. Avoidance tends to make anxiety worse over time.
I’ll give you some more info about overcoming avoidance in a bit, but for now, here’s some “quick fixes” that will make merging more manageable:
- Drive during off-peak hours — Avoid rush hour traffic if possible. That’s when highway driving is at its worst.
- Take along a trusted friend — Having someone you feel comfortable with in the car helps you calm down. Plus you have another pair of eyes to help keep track of things. “Sensory overload,” aka hypersensitivity anxiety, is one of the biggest complaints about highway driving, so having someone to watch your blind spots helps.
- Take a defensive driving class — Your anxiety may be due to a lack of good driving skills. Skillful execution of the physical mechanics of driving means more confidence in scary situations like highway merging.
2). Changing Lanes
This is VERY stressful, especially in heavy traffic. Having to maneuver inside a river of cars used to be one of my worst driving anxiety triggers. Here’s a couple of things I did that helped me a lot:
- Know the lane changes ahead of time — Suddenly changing lanes on the highway can be extremely unpleasant. Plan out any required lane changes ahead of time, before you drive. Drive the route during off hours to learn the lane changes under easier conditions.
- Use a driving app for your smart phone. Both the iPhone and the Android have built in navigation apps that give you turn-by-turn driving directions to almost any destination.
3). Driving at Highway Speed
Sometimes we have to drive at speeds that are faster than we’re comfortable with. What’s interesting is that most of our fear about driving faster is psychological.
Let’s say you feel safe going 50MPH but you get nervous if you have to go 60MPH. What’s really changed? In reality, not very much. Something inside you has changed because you’ve left your speed “comfort zone”.
Here’s some more ideas to try when driving at highway speeds:
- Stay in the right hand lane as much as possible — This lets faster traffic move safely around you on the left and allows you to drive more slowly. Slowing things down will automatically reduce your stress levels.
- Know the speed limit and drive 5 to 10MPH under it — It’s OK (and perfectly legal) to drive slower than the actual speed limit, especially in the right hand lane. Speeding up to accommodate other drivers is not your job. It’s their responsibility to go around you if they want to go faster. That’s the law. It’s also just basic highway driving courtesy.
Recovering From Anxiety Driving on Highways Means Overcoming Your Avoidance
Successful recovery from driving anxiety is ultimately about facing your fears. It’s about learning new ways of thinking and reacting to the things about driving that scare you. Most experts agree that habitually avoiding something we’re afraid of tends to make us more afraid in the long run.
My life was crippled by driving anxiety until I discovered how to “reprogram” my fearful reactions to driving. I knew there were lots of other anxious drivers out there, so I turned my discovery into the Driving Peace program with the help of anxiety treatment specialist Andrew Cunningham.
I hope this article was helpful for your anxiety about driving on highways.