Driving Anxiety as a Passenger: What Causes It, and How You Can Control It

agoraphobia, cognitive behavioral therapy, driving anxiety
Do you suffer driving anxiety as a passenger? Learn more about its causes and how to control it. You deserve to ride as a passenger without undue anxiety.

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If you’re already prone to anxiety, you may fear sitting in the passenger seat while someone else drives. This is driving anxiety as a passenger, and it’s extremely common. It can show up whether you’re in a car, an airplane, a bus — any moving vehicle where you’re not the driver.

What Causes Driving Anxiety as a Passenger?

The way I see it, there are two main causes of driving anxiety as a passenger. One is legitimate, and the other is an irrational manifestation of agoraphobia and driving. Below is a breakdown of the two types:

  1. Riding with unsafe drivers  — This type of driving anxiety as a passenger is rational. Driving is, in fact, a potentially dangerous exercise. Riding with unsafe drivers who either lack good driving skills, and/or who take stupid, unnecessary risks is a legitimate fear which should be taken seriously. The fastest cure for this type of driving anxiety is to stop riding with unsafe drivers. You are not required to put your safety (or your children’s safety) at risk through the actions of someone who either lacks good driving skills, drives while intoxicated, doesn’t pay attention, or doesn’t have a decent reaction time. In this case, your anxiety as a passenger is caused by external forces that you should avoid.
  2. Irrational, agoraphobic anxiety — If you’re riding with safe, competent drivers who know what they’re doing, but you’re still overwhelmed with driving anxiety as a passenger, it’s likely you’re dealing with the irrational fears that accompany most types of anxiety. Your brain and body have become hardwired to overreact to certain anxiety triggers, such as driving. Part of what I and Driving Peace co-creator Andrew Cunningham do in the Driving Peace program is teach you how to start changing these hardwired fear responses by building new neural pathways that react differently to driving.

Driving or riding in a vehicle does entail certain risks, that’s true. But extreme driving anxiety as a passenger — even with safe, competent drivers — is an example of your fear being out of proportion to the actual danger.

Ways to Control Driving Anxiety as a Passenger

You’re not always going to be in the driver’s seat. Having to ride as a passenger sometimes while someone else drives is inevitable. As long as you’re riding with competent drivers, it’s up to you to learn to control your irrational anxiety about being a passenger. Here’s some things you can try:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — Cognitive therapy is generally considered the most effective, long-lasting treatment for anxiety disorders. This is because it helps change the way you view your fearful situation, which, over time, changes the way you feel about and react to it. CBT is most effective when you work with a licensed therapist who specializes in cognitive therapy.  Here’s a link where you can find a therapist in your area.
  • Hypnotherapy — Hypnotherapy uses hypnosis to alleviate psychological problems. Hypnotherapy’s focus is calming the mind and body using relaxation, imagery, and the client’s own intuition to reprogram fear responses. Two options for you are to schedule a session with a certified hypnotherapist like Andrew (who does Skype sessions), or to use self-help hypnosis to address your issues. I recommend guided hypnosis sessions from Hypnosis Downloads. The have some great material available to overcome common fears and phobias.
  • Exposure therapy — Often used in conjunction with CBT, exposure therapy reduces your driving anxiety as a passenger by gradually exposing you to riding as a passenger. The thinking behind exposure therapy is that the only way we can overcome our fears is to face them. This is not easy, but, with the help of a competent professional, we can gradually face and live through our fears, slowly taking away their power over us. Here’s some more information about exposure therapy for anxiety disorders and panic attacks.

Try some of these techniques on for size and see what works for you. Driving anxiety as a passenger is a very common fear, so there’s lots of effective treatment options available. It may not be easy, but it’s worthwhile because you deserve the freedom of riding as a passenger without undue fear. It’s time to go out and get it.

Greg Weber

28 comments… add one
  • Nicole VanWinkle Aug 23, 2018

    My anxiety in a car is so extreme that my brain almost tricks me into thinking we’re about to crash. We can be driving completely straight and in the lanes, and all of a sudden I start thinking we’re about to hit the railing or another car. And it’s not just a thought, it’s almost like my entire brain is wired to think getting in a crash is inevitable, I start physically seeing our car head towards the rail, even though we’re still in between the lines!

  • momX3 Aug 4, 2018

    I can’t believe this is really a thing! I’m horrified to ride with my other half. It’s awful. I feel sick thinking about it.

    • Greg Weber Aug 4, 2018

      Do you know why?

      • momx3 Aug 6, 2018

        I have no idea but it’s getting worse. If I have to ride with someone, I will stay home.

        • Pearl Oct 26, 2018

          This happens to me I can ride with other people but not him. Why you think it happens?

  • jamie Jun 19, 2018

    I won’t let anyone drive me anywhere. I won’t fly anymore. I won’t get into a speed boat, I won’t get on the back of a motor cycle. I just don’t want to deal with the absolute terror that surges through my body and mind, so I just say no.
    And I don’t want therapy, I don’t want to be fixed. I am the best person to drive because my brain is hyper-aware of it’s surroundings. I see other people drive with one hand, one arm out the window, half a sleep, not really paying attention, talking to much, looking around too much, never fully focusing on the ton of metal barreling down the road with innocent lives in peril.

  • Vicky Wal Jun 5, 2018

    I have always been afraid of driving but now I am afraid of being a passenger in the car. started recently in the past few months that I feel like we are going to close car front on the side switching lanes issues. to close car is so bad it upsets my daughter. I’m OK if I take the city bus in the car it’s just so fearful or speeds of being close to trucks or cars. I have to get to work I have to overcome this but not sure how.

  • Kim May 25, 2018

    I thought I was the only one feeling like this! I had a bad accident on the freeway nearly 2 years ago and gradually my anxiety has become worse. I every time I’m in the car with my boyfriend I feel like my chest is tightening and my heart beats extremely fast, I don’t know if it’s his driving that freaks me out or trauma from my accident. I’ve been trying to listen to anxiety meditation with my headphones on when we go anywhere, I also try to be on my phone or just plain close my eyes.

    Everyday it gets worse, hopefully I’ll overcome this.

  • Bubblegum May 7, 2018

    I have fear only when my partner drives. It seems to me that his driving is often aggressive/ he takes corners too fast, only hits the breaks when we are very close to the car in front of us. My chest feels tight and I feel like throwing up in situations like this. I’ve told him but he doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong. I believe it is a mixture of rational and irrational fears.

  • Sandra Smith Mar 5, 2018

    I was recently a passenger on a motorcycle and was hit by a car and it’s really cause troubles I can’t get in a car without freaking out every time my husband or whoever is driving me I don’t want to go outside I haven’t driven in 11 days and I blacking out while sitting down just feeling sick all the time just thinking about anyone have any advice what I should do

  • Damyra Feb 13, 2018

    I have a fear of riding in the car with my husband, I’m not sure when this came about however it is getting worse with each ride as the passenger. My husband seems to think it’s all in my mind and I need to relax, however it is a true fear that has brought me to tears. I feel he is a safe driver but it doesn’t stop me from yelling slow down your going to fast can’t you see the car breaks in front of us, by now my husband can’t take it anymore and I don’t blame him I don’t know how to stop the frantic behavior. I’m lost please I need help and answers anyone.

    • Gloria Apr 28, 2018

      I know exactly how you feel. I have tried staring down at my phonr, hiding my closed eyes behind sunglasses and I’m still TERRIFIED. I hate going out now in the car…i need help

      • Denise May 23, 2018

        I hate riding with my significant other! He drives entirely too close to the vehicle in front of us & when changing lanes, the car barely gets past us & he’s moving over. If the car hits his brakes we will hit it. I want to wear a headband over my eyes but I know he’ll tell me I’m over reacting. I try closing my eyes & taking slow deep breaths but it’s still hard!

  • claire jenkins Feb 7, 2018

    my daughter has just passed her test and got her first car at 17. I’m a driver and thought i would be ok as her passenger. But not the case, i’m hoping its just early days, and it will be overcome the more i am in the car with her, as shes a good little driver. the last thing i want is to make her nervous. any ideas on how to manage my anxiety.

  • Natalie Feb 7, 2018

    Hey- I first struggled with anxiety when I was driving and then it moved onto being a front seat passenger. Its closed a lot of doors to me and I’ve sadly missed out on a lot of shopping and day trips but a positive factor is reading these comments and realising I’m not the only one who has this fear of having a panic attack or feeling unsafe that the worst could happen- I always opt for the option where I could sit in the back of the car or make my own way to a destination but sadly this anxiety I have is controlling me. I’ve recently opened up to someone about this and it felt good to get it out there but sadly not everyone is understanding or can understand the excuses you give to not go to such events. I hope that one day I have the confidence to get behind the wheel and be a confident driver again and especially a passenger. If anyone has any useful tips or advice on how they deal with this then I would really appreciate some feedback

    • Mary L Creekmore May 25, 2018

      I feel the exact same way. I am seeing a therapist now. Hope she can help me. I am miserable in a vehicle now and stopped driving 10 years ago.

  • Drew Feb 6, 2018

    I’ve never been comfortable with being a front-seat passenger. If it’s with my parents I’m usually find, but when it’s with friends or something I usually remain quiet and put a lot of pressure on the floor with my feet whenever something is happening that’s making me stressed, nervous or anxious. However, I’m at my worst when my girlfriend is driving. I don’t know why but I’ll freak out and yell things or make comments. She’s a newer driver but she’s definitely competent, and does numerous trips a week in our cars by herself.
    It’s putting a huge strain on us though. We could go out for a quick drive somewhere and it will turn into an intense argument since it makes HER feel unsafe and anxious with my reacting the way I do. I can’t help but see things going wrong before they even have a chance to possibly even LOOK like they’re going to turn our badly on the road – a car may be next to us and they appear to be slightly edging on our lane due to cars being parked and I’ll yell “look out!” and tense up and grip the car.
    What makes it frustrating for me is that I can’t shake this habit of reacting like that and I also can’t explain why since I have no clue as to why I react this way.
    Hopefully things get better over time but I’m struggling to see how I can adjust.

  • dee Jan 2, 2018

    I full on fear being in the passenger seat, or being a passenger, in the back seats i feel confined and start panicing that i cant see the road but when i do i still freak out. My hole body tenses up, i cant breathe and my hole body starts moving around out of control. I try to stop it by looking down at the floor, talking or trying to destract myself but its been getting worse. I can drive myself without a problem. When i feel it coming on i listen to the car and hear the sounds of the engine getting higher as it struggles i start getting worse and worse. I also have it happen going down hills and bumps in the road.

    • :) Jan 17, 2018

      I’ve experienced exactly the same for the past decade i guess. It’s been really difficult to explain this in words but as soon as i read yours i immediately was able to relate. I do the same too, look down or distract myself but the situation just gets worse. It doesnt happen everytime i ride a car tho like it happens for this period of time and all of a sudden, it doesnt then it comes back again. Im not sure how to deal with it anymore tbh it sucks how riding a vehicle has been a struggle i need to keep to myself for such long time now

  • Karlee Oct 29, 2017

    I’m nearly 18 years old, but I don’t have my own license so I have to drive passenger with my mother. I used to enjoy it, for the longest time. I loved going on joyrides just because it calmed me. But for the past few days or so, it does the opposite. I’ll get in the car and feel fine at first, but then a while goes by and I get a weird feeling in my body. My chest starts to feel heavy, and my hands start to feel tingly and I just feel so out of place and like I need to constantly catch my breath even though I’m breathing fine. I’ve always had anxiety, but it’s never been like this before. (It also started being like this at home too, but that’s a different story. It mainly just gets this bad in the car)
    It makes me really sad because I used to LOVE riding in the car and listening to music, but for some reason I get these bad feelings and it almost seems like it’s for no reason. I just sort of randomly get that tingly feeling in my hands and fingers and that heavy feeling in my chest and just start to feel really nervous for some reason.
    And now I’m even more nervous, because I have to ride in the car for about an hour and 45 minutes in about a week or two to see one of my relatives and I’m excited to see them because I absolutely love them! But I’m just dreading the ride because I have a bad feeling the anxiety attack that has been happening in the car is gonna happen :((

  • Becky Oct 28, 2017

    Mine is early morning fear as passenger in a taxi van. Too dark to look at scenery & usually one other passenger in van. I even called out today which is not like me. Had bad stomach ache & shaky. Normally good drivers but need to get negative out of head

  • Randy Oct 19, 2017

    I have an awful fear of being a passenger in a car. It is crippling me. My husband is a safe driver, an airline pilot, you would think I would feel safe with him but I don’t. I start crying and screaming it is embarrassing not to mention exhausting. I want to change this!

  • Schnarf5 Sep 23, 2017

    try recovery international which is a group created by dr. abraham low in 1935. It’s helped me immensely to face my fears and learn to function in spite of them.

  • Judith Sep 18, 2017

    I’m consistently afraid of being in a car period been in 4 car accidents and two within a year I’m not sure how to deal with I freak out and start to cry

    • Dejan Sep 27, 2017

      Hi Judith,

      Been through the same thing but as a driver, and have come out of the “tunnel” of anxiety so I hope the below can help. I completely understand and feel your frustration.

      The past is the past and not you may likely never experience an accident again. Having said that, as you have experienced accidents you are naturally anxious from those experiences as you think back to those events.

      The issue is we dwell on unexpected events expecting them to re-occur but never dwell on the normal non-events. For example since your last accident have you been in a car since and not had an accident? If yes the only issue you likely had is the anxiety and you are dwelling on that, and that’s ok, completely natural but problematic as it has turned a non event into an event in your mind as you had an anxiety episode and you dwell on those too.

      This releases all sorts of fight or flight chemicals into your body making you feel uneasy, panicky, heart rate rising, feeling of doom etc etc etc….all normal. The thing is these chemicals are finite in that after a while the body can’t produce anymore and things start to settle down. For me personally this can take about an hour and half. The thing is once you have gone through the whole rollercoaster ride of emotions and get back to this settled state, a sense of euphoria and confidence overcomes you and this is what you want to get to break the cycle.

      So how did I break the cycle of anxiety in your situation. (I went through this driving, not as a passenger)

      1. Don’t fear a panic episodes anymore, they won’t kill you.
      2. Get into a car as a passenger, ensure it’s with a safe driver and ask them to drive you for a couple of hours. Think of your anxiety trip as a tunnel with a beginning and a very sunny end. You want to go through that tunnel right through to the end. Please don’t wear a watch or anything that tells you the time.

      3. As you feel the anxiety rise, breathe in through your nose for a count of seven seconds, hold the breath for a count of 3 seconds, then exhale through your mouth for a count of 11 seconds. 7-11 method and do this three times. This will calm you. Repeat again as and when you need to and see it through the 3 time cycle.
      4. If you need to cry, cry…thats ok. But don’t get out of the car keep going.
      5. Start to look at the scenery if you can and focus on something for a moment like a billboard, tree or whatever.
      6. Keep going.
      7. Don’t stop.
      8. Keep going.
      9. a bit more.

      Now after a while the adrenaline and all the other stuff will burn off. Don’t stop once you have come through the tunnel of anxiety. You will very likely feel very settled/happy in the environment you are in and that’s great. Carry on being driven around and start a conversation with your driver (don’t distract them though). Check out the scenery, enjoy the ride and after about an hour of this head home.

      Now, if you can the following day or day after repeat all the above again. You’ll likely to feel some panic but follow the steps above until you pass through the anxiety.

      And repeat a few days later again if possible. With repeated trips you are retraining your mind that you are perfectly fine where you are.

      The caveat is that if you stop this journey mid way by wanting out, you are further reinforcing your fear in your mind. It’s so important to see this through to get through this. I know this from experience by turning off a motorway once I felt panic instead off going through with the journey. I simply had to continue and funnily enough once I told myself that it was ok to panic, the anxiety attack stopped.

      I hope this helps.

  • Chevon Willock Aug 21, 2017

    I am in constant fear of being a passenger on a bus, taxi, or driving with someone who is mentally ill. I cannot stop it. I actually stop breathing. I look out the window as I gasp for air. I gets fears of the vehicle running out of breaks and smashing the vehicles in front. I fear the vehicle is going too fast. I also fear left turns at the lights. I think as we drive a vehicle making a left turn will smash the vehicle I am sitting in.

  • Teresa Aug 1, 2017

    I am always nervous and really bothers me. I even question my faith. Would like to discuss with some in Memphis, Tn. area.

  • Jennifer Hughes Apr 29, 2017

    Thank you for this. It has been difficult to explain this people, but how you have explained it is perfect. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it, but I am hopeful.

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