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:
A Highway Phobic Meets Her Demon: Merging Traffic
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.
40 thoughts on “Do You Have Anxiety Driving on Highways?”
My issue came out of nowhere after 25 yrs of driving. I was on vacation, visiting family, everything very relaxed and out of nowhere it was like my mind was screaming at me to stop the car and get
off the highway . Based on the mile markers I knew that I had about 23 miles to get back to my family members home. I white knuckled it but made it. The rest of my visit I had to let others drive me. When I returned to my bustling urban home city, I initially had no problems in the highway so I figured there was something about the open space of the more rural area I was visiting. But days later the anxiety came back. I feel like I’m in a chair with wheels and someone pushed me down a hill and I’m careening out of control. I tried distractions like counting how many white black silver etc cars I saw, making phrases out of the letters on license plates, singing really loud. Eventually I just gave up highway driving. I haven’t driven on a highway since 2007. I had to leave a job because taking the streets took me over 90 minutes each way, it was exhausting. Public transportation didn’t run late enough in the evening for my needs.
It really is a physiological problem for me. If I’m on a street with lots of buildings, trees etc that suddenly enters a less populated area with fewer traffic lights buildings etc, my mind perceives it as a highway even tho a couple minutes ago it felt fine and I start getting physically uncomfortable. I have a cousin with a similar problem, she can’t avoid the highways tho. We both think there maybe something with balance, inner ear etc issues.
Oh and when I still tried to keep highway driving, I was very comfortable in rush hour. Rush hour traffic used to annoy me but after this started if I was surrounded by cars on all sides and creeping along, I was fine. Once the traffic opened up I would freak out and get off.
I’m considering trying hypnosis because although I find some routes that would drive most people nuts, there are a lot of events I miss out on because it’s just too far to take streets and no one else wants to go. It has altered my life in a negative way.
Thats how i feel now , I been driving for 41 years then out of no where anxiety or fear took control of my mind , i thought it was my car ,medicine etc. Went to the Doctor he referred me to a phycologist then ophthalmologist she gave me glasses with prisms suppose to help focus my eyes(crap) my vision is 20/20 with both eyes. But driving around hometown I’m fine also i have this fear of dreams that this is what will demise me to death i really need help my friends and family don’t understand they think its just nerves i don’t think so….
I’m so grateful for your site. I learned how to drive in NYC 3 months ago at 25 mph speed limits. I moved to Florida 2 weeks ago and banged up my car last night – the first night I drove out by myself. Now all I want to do is take cabs to work.
I have this fear since February 2018. After 22 years of driving with absolutely no stress once I was driving on the highway it hit me so strong that I cant get over it. I can drive very fast and accurate but once I get on the highway everything change. Now I fear but randomly I can drive 200-300 miles with no problem on the highway and when I drive back home it hits me or reverse or both way fear, but not without fear both ways. I still cant understand how it works and how I can stop this fear.
I’ve been a driver now for over 22 years (learned to drive when I was 34 y/o), and I’m still extremely nervous especially when I have to drive on highways I’m unfamiliar with. I always look for back roads to locations if I can find them, but sometimes there are no back roads or the back roads aren’t as they appear on a map. Other drivers can’t relate to my nervousness, and they lose patience or are intolerant. I’ve also scared my passengers; however, I’ve never been the cause of a serious accident.
I was a law enforcement officer. I am retire now. I agree with the person above who said there is a correlation with not getting enough sleep. I think also that it’s related to ptsd. A lot of retire law enforcement officers suffer from this. When you feel not in control of things in your life- anxiety can overwhelm you and manifest itself in this matter! I don’t know what the solution to this is but it’s comforting to know,you are not alone.
I used to drive everywhere. Not now! I don’t drive anywhere near highways. It’s too dangerous. Drivers drink, smoke pot, talk on cell phones, jump in front of you. I’ve seen too many accidents. The only time I drive now is when I drive to the grocery store near my house.
For people who get nervous driving, it really helps to learn the roads!
Learning where things are and how the roads connect to each other makes for a confident and defensive driver. There are some really unsafe road designs in my city. Sometimes, feeling nervous can be out of proportion indicating phobia, but nervousness can also be a good thing- it indicates a discomfort with the surroundings. In one exit, in order to reach the final destination, you would need to cross 3 BUSY lanes of highway to come off the main highway exit onto the next road. Unsurprisingly, this bad road design has contributed to a lot of vehicle accidents because drivers try to come off the highway and forcing themselves to merge across the 3 lanes. I now avoid taking that exit, but when I was learning the roads and would accidentally take it, I would purposely drive straight and took an alternate route to reach my destination even if it took 5-10 minutes longer. And now that I know this exit is dangerous, when I drive on that road, I am extremely alert and cognizant that other drivers may make bad decisions such as by quickly merging across 3 lanes of highway potentially cutting me off. Now that I learned the highway system and certain confusing intersections and highway ramps, exits, I now am an extremely confident defensive driver!
I drove on the highways for 25 years until I had a panic attack on rt 128 in Boston. Drivers were erratic, fast and the slow lane was being used for anything but driving slowly or safely. I made it home by driving in the middle lane until I reached the RI line but my nerves were shattered from the anxiety. I still drive but not on highways…Driving itself doesn’t bother me but dealing with many who seem to have no sense of care for the other drivers does. So our fears are based on some big truths and that is what scares me.
Exactly! Highway anxiety is a perfectly NORMAL response to a realistically dangerous activity! The deadliest and most debilitating accidents happen on freeways! It’s a friggin racetrack full of BAD drivers and tractor trailers. You’re much safer reducing your use of highways. I only use them now for long drives 40 miles or more. Interstate is not bad once you leave the highly populated areas. A normal 20 minute drive only increases 5 minutes for me without the freeway. I’ve been escorting 9 years safely and I do it due to good instinct. If a situation feels dangerous and you can tell it realistically is very risky, listen to your self! It’s crazy this site is telling people to ignore a dangerous situation and the anxiety that comes with it. Highway s really are more dangerous for drivers.
Highways are the WORST for road debris. After dark, but in moderate traffic, swerving to avoid is so unnerving……I don’t want to swerve into another car or into the path of an upcoming car going 30 over the limit….and I’m going the speed limit [or 5 over]….there’s just not too much time to check behind before swerving to avoid or checking if better to swerve left or right. I have damaged tires 4 or 5 times in the past 5 years…..and I just ran over something doing undercarriage damage a few nights ago. I have swerved and avoided more often than not…..just as I have ran debris over without damaging car more often than not. I have told myself countless times to watch more closely……but it’s no use! I am a defensive driver…..I try going with the flow of the lane and work into the slowest lane [not always the far right]. The only way to best avoid road debris is to always try not driving right alongside other vehicles [and knowing ahead of time that nobody is beside me allows for quick swerve]…..and always be watching ahead as far as I can see. These things are not always so easy to do, especially after dark. I have a 37 mile drive to work [2nd shift]…..it takes almost 15 minutes longer on the non-highway path[s]….but that’s how I’m running from now on! I have a highway drive every Friday during rush hour I make [too far for backroad route]…..but I’m going to either start going 3 hours before rush hour or waiting til after! Highway road debris is my enemy…LOL….no more highways for me!
I drove an hour commute for 10 years, and traveled cross country 3000 miles with my parents about 10 times all on busy highway with no issues. My fear came over time (over 30 years) as the population and traffic, and the amount of idiots on the road increased. My fear came from the increase in traffic, the increase in the speed limit, the increase in unskilled inexperienced young drivers (parents are too busy now a days to take the time to teach their kids to properly drive) people use drugs and drive and, most of all cell phone use and texting. I’m guessing there has been an increase in the fear of highway driving coinciding with the invention of texting and the increase in the population. Throw self driving cars into the mix and yeah, I’ll never get on the highway again. Go to other countries where there is major population and traffic problems and probably 50% of that country’s people won’t drive, because you’d have to be crazy to want to. I have zero faith in other drivers because the world is full of stupid people. Why the hell would I want to be going 70 miles an hour with all the stupid sheep? My husband tolerates my fear 100%, but if ever came a day that he had enough of it, I would think “too bad leave me then” (and I have a beautiful fairytale marriage.). But, it’s not worth it to me to spend my time on the highway constantly. That’s how strongly I feel about it. I feel sorry for people who have a life where they HAVE to commute, I think they are brainwashed into thinking highway driving is okay because they have big families and expensive fast paced lifestyles to support and they have no choice. I think less and less people will want to drive as time goes on, and the population increases. The car industry will suffer for it. People are not going to want to keep putting themselves on unsafe highways. I will get on the highway myself or as a passenger, but I will 100% choose not to if possible. Remember folks, highway driving has only been around since like the late 50’s. It is not natural for a human to want to be in a tin can going fast in danger all the damn time. A fast paced life style isn’t a happy life style for many people. And, quite frankly most would probably chose to slow down if they could, but they’re “stuck” so they can’t. I however, am not “stuck” – Thank God. .
7fg809: While you make a few good points, if traffic is moving at normal speed – and you’re only driving 40 mpg on a highway, you actually become part of the problem for everyone on the road – not just other nervous drivers. If you’re that overwhelmed, it’s probably wise that you try when possible to stick with local roads (I now do the same).
I’m also not convinced that self-driving cars will provide the absolute level of safety so many people are apparently anticipating. I think we’ve seen increasing examples of hacker’s ability to get into virtually every type of computer-associated technology. I saw something on a news program a while back where they demonstrated someone hacking into a regular car’s computer system remotely and taking control – making it speed up, stop, etc.. I don’t even want to think what could happen if someone figures out how to take control of self-driving cars…
I do not fret at all driving simple roads. On highways the tension dials up. I’m very aware that I’m not happy being where I am. I play it safe and keep it 40mph~. As someone mentioned the world is full of people who play fast and loose passing without signals or without near enough room going 80.
I don’t trust these people aren’t watching Netflix on their phones, eating a bowl of cereal and staring at their crotch picking fuzz off their pants at the same time. Rules exist, and you can know most or all of them and feel safe by that until you actually get to driving. They exist, but the flippant disregard for even the most basic ones keep your on your toes at all times. TBH I don’t like driving with large groups of metal around me period which is why night driving is to me a bit gentler, but who is to say there aren’t a million cereal eaters out there driving without tail or brake lights in darkness. They certainly make no effort to not blind you with high beams.
I drive as little as possible and I hate every minute of it. I’m a big fan of self driving cars completely taking over and removing the human element all together. I have more confidence in a machines ability to communicate with another machine than person to person. You get a guarantee at least,the machine will bother to make the effort. Just don’t make them so smart they could “rather” or ever say the curse word whatever. That is the problem here. Drivers aren’t getting worse. People are. Which affects everything they do. Bring on the bots.
This article neglects to mention a key element of highway driving anxiety – at least in my experience, and that’s both the sometimes substantial distance between exits, and the fear of exiting and ending up on another highway (and possibly getting lost in the process).
When you’re on a regular roadway – even one with heavy traffic and/or a high speed limit, there are usually frequent opportunities to easily get off of that road, and almost all ‘exits’ are other local roads. On a highway, the next exit may be miles away, and often involves having to navigate numerous overhead signs that may be intimidating/confusing, especially when you’re approaching them at 55+ mph. And as you’re exiting (unless you’re absolutely familiar with the route and the exit), there’s the very real fear that you may be on a spiraling ramp that takes you to more signs, some (or all) of which direct you to yet another highway. I’ve driven highways for years – and this was always my personal highway nightmare, and it’s only gotten worse in recent years.
Merging, fast driving, etc. is not exclusive to highway driving, but the exit issues are – and I think they play a far more significant role in highway driving anxiety than most sites (including this one) suggest.
I’m one of those persons who doesn’t like highway driving anymore.
I use to drive in the northeast(on crazy busy highways) but had 2 incidents that really shook me(which put my life at risk) but was OK . (late 90s) I had been driving for 20 years then.
To the person who loves to drive fast and doesn’t understand their family and friends anxiety-you don’t sound very empathetic.
. We have idiots on the road who feel they can drive 90 miles an hour while multitasking..texting , talking on cell phones who put themselves and others at risk. I don’t mind driving around towns or small cities but driving fast does affect some of us. I’ve done hyno-therapy , but it still doesn’t ease that feeling…of panic. One answer is to live in cities where you can rely on efficient public transportation…or live in a laid back area(which is where I am now) I still love to travel but as I’ve gotten older with night blindness-driving does NOT appeal to me. Give me trains!
Some of us are very confident in other ways -just not driving
I am very curious as to what causes hwy anxiety. I have none of it. In fact my life long dream was completed when I went to Germany to be able to drive on their speed limitless hwys allowing me to reach consistent speeds of over 150mph, and old people were still passing me.
I am an American, but there is something painfully wrong with Americans with how so many are afraid to go fast. In fact its getting pretty annoying with family members that are scared of me driving. Never mind the fact that I have professionally raced AND driven on Germany’s best roads with no speed limits. I never tail gate, I always use turn signals, I never cut anyone off. I’m actually an extremely careful driver, but boy do I love the speed when the road is clear.
So I am not here to mock those afraid of driving. I would really like to learn how do I fix those around me that have this anxiety of hwy driving or fast hwy driving. It painfully confuses me because every intersection in the city is far more dangerous than a hwy.
Fear of speed (aka tachophobia) is a very common and can take many forms. I found an interesting article about it here that might give you more insight: http://www.fearof.net/fear-of-speed-phobia-tachophobia/
There are no specific answers as to why human beings develop phobias, but there are several indicators that suggest a person is more likely to develop them:
All human beings have irrational fears. Speed doesn’t happen to be one of them for you, but I’m certain you have others. The difference, though, between irrational fear and an actual phobia is that most irrational fear doesn’t have a big impact on our lives. Irrational fears become phobias when they significantly disrupt our day-to-day existence. Untreated agoraphobia is a good example that can have a shattering impact on a person’s life. Agoraphobia starts as a manageable irrational fear for many people, then grows into a full-blown phobia gradually over time.
As far as your family members, you can’t “fix” them. No amount of logic or reasoning ever cured anyone from irrational fear. I would suggest you urge them to seek treatment for their fears. Untreated fear almost always gets worse with time. One common way millions of people overcome their fears is through self-help techniques like hypnosis. Some of your family members might find that helpful.
Thanks for your comment! It always makes my day when people reach out!
The site you posted of Tachophobia, and I wish it had a better name because the gf is now making fun of it saying she isnt afraid of tacos lol,is very interesting! I seriously doubt any of them will want to go through treatment for it, but its good to know most people have this problem, and I should be more considerate to those unfortunate enough. It is just a pure shame I will never be able to enjoy the autobahn with my significant other.
Sorry but that is some stupid nonsense label. Fear of highways is in no way irrational. Highway accidents are the most deadly and debilitating and in most major metros the drivers really are bloody awful. The high speeds and unsafe drivers in it multiplies your risk of becoming seriously injured or road splattered.
I used to drive all over the place and about 6 years ago out of nowhere I started panicking on the freeway. First I couldn’t be with anyone as a passenger on the freeway to now where I’m OK but I can’t be on the driver side. I hv tried taking small steps n drive a little on if n it didn’t help. I need help I hv lost job opportunities because of it.
Same here…I used to have no issue at all on freeways and gradually over the years I have become paralyzed by them. It seems to me somewhat tied to lack of sleep but that definitely isn’t the whole issue. I am mystified why I could drive on freeways years ago but now I can’t!
Highway driving is f’d up, Period! Too much unnecessary speed. I used to push 80mph tops in Boston but after getting into a serious accident at 45mph when my car skidded into a shallow valley and came out virtually unscathed, I can barely push 60mph on a highway. Anxiety is killing me on highway so as AAA mentioned, I have come to accept that highway driving is not for me anymore. Although my work routine is an hour long journey to Phoenix, I am much comfortable and feels safe and sad. May be I need help, may be I don’t.
I completely agree with AAA’s post above. I would rather take an hour to get peacefully where I am going than have a 20-minute HELL ride on the highway. The anxiety is severe whether I am the passenger or the driver. I tried meds, meditation, therapy, and persistence for 10 years. I finally realized there is ZERO reason I ever need to go on a highway again as long as I live. My life is much happier with avoidance.
It really helped me out a lot thanks
I guess to conquer fear of driving, one needs to practice A LOT before going out there.
Oh, dear me! I had had light years of driving practice including German highways where I drove 200kmph. And you know what? a day came when this irrational fear of highways came and could almost do nothing with it. I do drive if i have to, but then im exhausted like hell.
I’m really not sure that saying “avoiding the highway” is the worst thing you can do. In my case, it’s the best. I have ZERO reason to ever drive on the highway, there are always backroads that I can take to get anywhere that I’m going. I have extreme claustrophobia and horrible anxiety when it comes to driving on the highway. Just being in a car gives me horrible claustrophobia but being on the highway makes in worse since I live in OKC which has some of the worst traffic congestion in the entire US. Some of us justs won’t EVER feel okay to drive on the highway no matter how many times we attempt to. After seeing multiple therapists who ALL said that driving on the highway was the only way to overcome it, I can safely say after trying to drive on the highway for 4 years- my fear is now WORSE than it was before. I’ve tried for almost 4 years to drive on the highway and it has not helped, only hurt even worse. I’ve come to accept that I will never feel comfortable doing it and that’s ok! I don’t travel out of state, I don’t have any need to drive on the highway because there are regular main roads I can take to anywhere in the state. I’d rather have an hour long car journey where I feel safe and fine than a 20 minute HELL RIDE on the highway where I’m in the middle of having a heart attack. No thanks, I’ll stick to the main roads.
I only find highway driving stressful during the day. I have plenty of confidence in my own driving abilities, but other drivers worry me.
People are so much more distracted these days.
Add that to the reckless driving habits that have always plagued the roads, and you’ve got a disturbing cocktail.
I honestly can’t count how many times I’ve almost been hit by some jerk changing lanes before they had enough room. Most of those times they don’t even bother to signal. It happens almost daily.
I’m sure, in their heads, they think they’re great drivers. But in reality they’re just lucky that people brake in time to let them in.
Things like that, make me anxious about highway driving.
I think anxiety comes from being uncertain that your skills will be sufficient to keep you safe on the road. That is why I took a mature drivers course. I needed a refresher of how to drive safely and with awareness, so I took a class taught by police officers. It was an anxiety relief for me.
An excellent point, Amanda. You’re absolutely right.
I am from a small town.. near Cape Town in South Africa. Some of my friends and family live in the CBD. The taffic is HORRIBLE. I am a great driver, but when it comes to driving on these Cape Town roads……im stresssssed out. Its easy to get totally lost here because the roadsigns lack information and if you miss an off-ramp or exit you are totally screwed and will land in a place you’ve never been only seen in your nightmares.
Our drivers are also hooter-happy and unreasonable,aggressive and just dont care. Im scared of even sticking to the rules of the road because if you drive according to the speedlimit..they hooooot.. if you made a slight mistake and indicate that you have to change lanes they will hoooot….and curse at you…no tolerance, no mercy.
Nothing…just negative stuff.
I avoid driving in Cape Town Citybowl alone…its too much hairlosing stress.
That sounds awful! 🙁
hey! It really may be a good idea!
When i drive the main streets or highways i can’t breathe and it feels like im going to crash i wasn’t like this when i was younger i dontknow what to do i haven’t took my road test yet what can i do please help.
The Driving Peace program gives you tools to cope with highway driving fears. Just know that it’s one of the most common manifestations of driving phobia, so you’re not alone! There is also a fantastic section about overcoming highway anxiety in Barry McDonagh’s Panic Away program: https://www.drivingpeace.com/panicaway
Hope this helps!
I dont know how it started but it started out of the blue I am driving Since 2001, One day I drove on the highway and started feeling scared didn’t why I had to exit right away. ever since then whenever I drive on the highway I shake I cant control it. I have been driving on the highway for long time :S don’t know how this started.
I’m still not a big fan of highway driving 🙂
I don’t have a fear of driving but I am not a big fan. Driving is just a necessary evil for me. I will admit to having a touch of night vertigo though.
Hi there I am so delighted I found your blog, I really found you by error, while I was researching on Digg for something else, Nonetheless I am here now and would just like to say thank you for a marvelous post.