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What Causes driving phobia

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It’s hard to be precise, though sometimes an unpleasant experience triggers it off. One Anxiety Care client became severely phobic within a few days of making a long and dangerous night journey in thick fog. Being in a bad road accident (or even just seeing one) can also be the trigger.

On the other hand, lots of people find that their driving phobia comes on gradually, or

comes and goes over a long period, and no particular trigger is involved. It may just be anxiety focusing on a regular activity as part of a generally rising anxiety state.

IS IT IMPORTANT TO FIND OUT THE CAUSE?

It may be useful to know the ‘cause’, but it isn’t vital. Often, the origin of the phobia is nothing to do with driving, but is part of a broader anxiety problem such as agoraphobia or general anxiety disorder (GAD). A run of unpleasant ‘life events’ such as illness, death of a close relative, marriage break-up, losing a job or bad depression may lie behind it.

People who are recovering from driving phobia do begin to talk more freely about driving, including accidents etc., but this a sign of recovery, not a stage that has to be reached before recovery can start.

In general it is not worth spending a lot of time and energy on ‘rooting out the cause’. The point is to learn to control the phobia.

HOW DOES DRIVING PHOBIA RELATE TO OTHER ANXIETY CONDITIONS?

Driving phobia is sometimes part of the ‘agoraphobic cluster’, in which case the person concerned is also likely to fear standing in queues, going onto bridges, and being in places where they feel ‘trapped’ (such as a hair-dresser or a dentist).

People with these problems often find it difficult to go out without a companion, for

fear of encountering such situations. They may also have ‘social’ phobias, such as fear of blushing, trembling, talking, eating or writing in front of other people, and of being stared at (though these can also be separate phobias).

Some people with driving phobias have General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), and feel anxious wherever they are. Many GAD cases feel that they are going mad, but as with all phobias, this is not mental illness and has nothing to do with insanity.

People with GAD may also worry excessively about family health, the future etc., but they usually manage to face up to what they fear and struggle on with life, even if they find this very difficult.

Depression can also lie behind driving phobia and other anxiety conditions. To a person whose overall energy is lowered by depression, the world is a very anxious place, where problems grow out of all proportion.

Important: If someone is clinically depressed, the general rule is for their doctor to treat the depression first, before they go on to tackle the phobia. A person who is depressed, or who is taking anti-depressant drugs, is unlikely to be able to undertake a successful programme of self-treatment for their phobia, or may find it very difficult.

HOW CAN I OVERCOME MY PHOBIA?

People with phobias have become ‘conditioned’ to produce the fear reaction in situations which aren’t really dangerous at all. The best way to counter this is by ‘de-conditioning’: training themselves to react correctly. This is done by gradually exposing themselves to the things they fear, and experiencing the fears without running away, and so becoming less sensitive to them.

The idea is simple, and it does not necessarily require the help of professionals, but it calls for a fair amount of courage and determination. The help of family and friends can make self-treatment much easier to manage, and this is also why many people prefer to join a self-help group where they can get support from people in a similar situation.

Anyone who decides to try desensitisation needs to draw up a personal ‘training programme’. This means deciding where they are now, and where they want to be at the end, and fitting as many gradual ‘exposure’ steps in between as they need.

The first step can be as simple as staying in a situation that can just be managed now, but for a little longer than before.

Obviously people’s phobias are at many different levels and may focus on many different fears, but here is one example of how self-exposure steps for a driving phobia could be ‘graded’:

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Stage 1: Sit in the car with the engine running.

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Stage 2: Drive a few yards up the road and then park, switch off, and walk back.

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Stage 3: Drive round the block, then park, switch off, etc.

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Stage 4: Take a slightly longer trip with a companion to support you.

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Stage 5: Take the same trip without the companion.

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Stage 6: Take a still longer trip.

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Stage 7: Drive on a ‘trapping’ road such as a motorway, with a companion.

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Stage 8: Try the motorway trip without a companion.

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Stage 9: Take a long trip on roads that you are unfamiliar with.

The steps can be as large or as small as necessary, and big steps can be broken down into smaller ones. But each step should challenge the anxiety a little more than the last.

Relaxation techniques can be helpful in tackling the next step, and it is easy to practice relaxation in the seclusion of a car. But if the steps you have chosen prove impossible, of if you are depressed or have other severe anxiety problems, then professional help from a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist may be needed.

You can reach such professionals through your GP; and in any case we recommend that you contact your GP and talk to him or her about your disorder.

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