I am in my 50s and have a phobia of motorway driving, which means I haven’t driven on one for some years. As my son grows up and we need to drive around more for his activities, it’s essential that I overcome it. I’ve been to many therapists but none seems to be able to figure a way forward. One driving instructor suggested that I may have horizontal vertigo, which might be the case as it’s not really travelling at speed or other cars that worry me.
TANYA SAYS A phobia is exactly as you have described: an aversion to a situation that’s caused by catastrophic thinking which doesn’t fit the reality of the risk. As you’ve discovered, it can become entrenched and restrict everyday life.
When we feel highly anxious, we go into survival mode and our instinct is either to fight or run away to avoid the risk. By avoiding driving on motorways, you’ve embedded the belief you’re in danger. You have an irrational perception of risk as you have no evidence to challenge it. To
You need to build your confidence and break down the fear
overcome this, you may need cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help combat negative thoughts.
It’s important to understand what underpins anxiety. Sometimes, a bad experience can cause an aversion to a specific situation because each time we’re exposed to that situation our anxiety is triggered. However, your driving instructor has suggested another possible cause, which sounds like benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). This is a common cause of vertigo and symptoms include dizziness, abnormal rhythmic eye movements and nausea. It can arise from a problem in the inner ear and would need to be assessed and treated by a doctor.
Whatever the underlying cause, anxiety has affected your driving confidence to such a degree that it’s restricting your life and possibly your son’s if you can’t take him to activities. Additionally, if left untreated, anxiety can spread into other areas of life.
Confronting your phobia with an experienced driving instructor will enable you to challenge it one step at a time, build your confidence and break down irrational fears.
For this to work, you need to address how to manage escalating levels of anxiety and learn to keep calm, because if you white-knuckle each small driving step, your anxiety levels will only reinforce your belief that you can’t cope. To manage this, I’d suggest learning psychological and behavioural skills first.
Cognitive behavioural therapy is an evidence-based approach for the treatment of anxiety disorders. The physiological symptoms of anxiety are mastered by learning ways to calm your body through breathing and relaxation techniques. Apps, such as Headspace and Calm, might help you practice this through mindfulness.
Mastering anxious thoughts that crowd your mind as you attempt motorway driving requires the ability to recognise them as irrational when they come to you. Using your rational brain, you can learn to block the thoughts, distract yourself from them and challenge them by talking back to them. You can also practise mind and body techniques while watching online videos of this from the driver’s perspective.
If you are seeing a GP to discuss vertigo, ask for a referral for CBT. Alternatively, you can find a private practitioner at bps.org.uk or cbtregisteruk.com. See also: anxietycare. org.uk/phobias/driving-phobia/.
Professor Byron is a chartered clinical psychologist. Each month, she counsels a reader going through an emotional crisis