Why driving anxiety is rising in lockdown – and how to conquer it

Have you become more nervous about driving recently? Find out why driving anxiety is rising in lockdown – and what you can do to conquer it.

According to Google trend data, the search term driving anxiety has received a 7,900% uplift in searches within the last month alone. Such a rise reflects the UK’s uneasiness with regards to getting behind the wheel. It is no surprise that the current climate has fuelled anxiousness around driving.

Government guidelines dictate that England is to leave their household for essential reasons and exercise only. As a result, mileage has dramatically lessened. It is estimated that one in five drivers in the UK are nervous to drive after lockdown.

In this article, Amelia Wicks at Just Car Checks presents the science behind lockdown driving anxiety and how to combat it.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of dread/worry that presents itself in many forms. Increased heartrate, sweating, lack of focus and even sickness are all symptoms that can surface as the result of anxiety.

Anxiety in the run up to certain events can be common, for example before a job interview or big life event however, it can become so severe that it prevents a person from undertaking everyday tasks.

Lockdown and anticipatory anxiety

Google trend data reveals that the term anticipatory anxiety has seen a 5,000% uplift within the last month. Such a significant rise in searches showcases the nations unfamiliarity with its existence.

Anticipatory anxiety falls under the umbrella of generalized anxiety, however, is sparked by specific circumstances. Anticipatory anxiety occurs when a person lays particular focus on a certain event or situation. A common misconception is that anticipatory anxiety is less debilitating than other anxiety disorders as non-sufferers tend to believe that once the event that is causing its symptoms is over, its symptoms fade.

However, anticipatory anxiety can occur for months. For example, a nervous flyer may experience its symptoms from the moment they book their flight rather than just on the flight itself. 

Anticipatory anxiety that occurs as the result of driving can be incredibly draining as driving tends to be an everyday event. The condition occurs as a result of the mind concentrating on what could go wrong rather than what will probably happen. The imagination foresees catastrophe so symptoms can escalate as time moves forward towards the event. 

In order to avoid the occurrence of anticipatory anxiety, I would suggest limiting your news intake. Whilst this can seem unrelated, overloading on news can fuel thoughts that predict catastrophe. The current climate sees the news frequently present upheaval. When the brain absorbs negative news, it activates the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response, which is essentially at the root of anxiety.

The news can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system which releases the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. As a result, a surge in cortisol is flowing around the body which in turn, is acting as fuel to anticipatory anxiety.

This can heighten symptoms that are already there. As a result, it is more likely that the brain will imagine what will go wrong throughout your upcoming driving experience and spiral out of control. Step away from over actively checking or watching the news. This will work to supress symptoms and boost positivity.

Imagination stations

You should not underestimate the power of imagination. Imagination is influential to your overall wellbeing and can even spark physical reactions. For instance, imagine your favourite food in your kitchen. Now imagine walking up to your chosen food, looking at it and going to eat it. Likelihood is your mouth has produced saliva just as if it were physically in your presence.

This reaction is all the result of your imagination. If your imagination envisions negative occurrences throughout your driving journey, this can spark physical symptoms. If you feel that your imagination runs wild at the prospect of driving, work to become a master of your thoughts. Mediation is a great exercise to aid in controlling your thoughts and where they go.

The DMN network is the default mode network in the brain. Studies have shown that consistent meditation suppresses the activity in the DMN and in turn streamlines thoughts. The DMN is active when we are not thinking of anything in particular or you are generally going from thought to thought.

If your mood is low, your thoughts are likely to be pessimistic. If the DMN is highly active, your negative thoughts will rapidly escalate. Meditation calms the DMN and people that adopt the practice regularly can bring their wandering thoughts back into the present moment.

Meditation can help ease driving stress

Amazingly, meditation alters the structure of the brain. Scientists have found that guided mediations that work directly to ease stress increase the cortical thickness in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the structure in your brain that is located in your temporal lobe and plays an instrumental role in learning, memory and regulating emotions.

The practice also decreases the cell volume in the amygdala which dictates stress and anxiety. As a result, there is an improvement in mood, anxiety, and negative thinking. 

If you feel that your anxiety surrounding driving is impacting your wellbeing, consistent meditation can aid in restructuring the way you think and ease anxiety before you set off.

Consistency is key. Commit to practicing meditation just three times a week initially for just five minutes at a time and then elongate your practices over time. Not sure how to get started? Read our beginner’s guide to mediation here.

Resist the whole journey

Playing the journey as a whole in your head can intensify the symptoms of anxiety. When people are experiencing anxiety, it can be tempting to try and play the journey in your mind in an attempt to ease anxiety, however, this can be counterproductive.

It is virtually impossible to accurately detail every part of your journey. If you attempt to ‘play the journey’, the likelihood is that you will skip to the parts that spikes your nerves, whether it may be a bridge, a roundabout or junction. Instead of focusing on the whole journey, partake in the journey and take it one road at the time, avoiding jumping to conclusions on the road ahead. 

Plan your breaks

Use your breaks as somewhat of a reroute. Instead of holding the end destination in your mind as your end goal, plan a set of breaks. Use the breaks as your end goal so you are essentially breaking the journey down into smaller, less intimidating chunks.

As your confidence builds, you can make these break longer in between stops. Also, have something to look forward to on each break. For instance, your favourite snack or beverage. Finally, do not put any pressure on yourself to drive. If you simply do not want to, then don’t. Wait until you feel at ease and go from there. 

Learn how to manage your anxiety

Driving isn’t the only trigger for anxiety. If you’d like help to get your anxiety under control in your daily life, you may find these articles helpful:

Photo by Kenny Gaines