I’ve received two letters recently from visitors concerning having a panic attack while driving. With permission I’m sharing their stories on this page. And I’ve put together some tips and advice which I hope will help those of you having similar experiences.
Dear Dr Purves
I’ve been driving for about seven years and until a couple of months ago I’d have described myself as a confident driver. I was driving up to visit my in-laws with my husband when I experienced a panic attack on the motorway and had to pull over. I couldn’t face driving any further so my husband, who has only just passed his test had to drive the rest of the way in the dark and rain.
I wonder if the fact I’ve been under a lot of pressure had anything to do with it. I’m currently taking my masters and our exams were just about to start. The trip to our in-laws was bad timing as I already felt stressed out from cramming for the tests. Then the weather was bad. It was dark and I was tired and traffic alerts kept coming over the radio with news of accident after accident and it just all felt too much.
I’m worried this will happen again and want to know what I should do if it does. I’m especially worried about being on my own and not being able to go on. At the moment I’m only happy to drive if someone’s with me.
Dear Dr Purves
My father died suddenly three months ago and I’ve not been handling it that well. I’ve been commuting to Guildford for Law School and staying awake from my family in the week. Last week on the drive back to Law School I felt this overwhelming need to get out of the car. I can’t explain it other than I just had to get out. I was in a queue of traffic and for two pins I’d have abandoned the car. I just about held on and pulled off the road as soon as I could. I’m not sure if this was some kind of panic attack but I’d welcome some advice.
Panic attack while driving: Driving is stressful
Let’s start at the beginning. Driving is stressful, full stop. Have you ever got out of the car and realised that your shoulders feel stiff and achy? Often we tense up without realising it.
Driving takes a lot of concentration and becomes even more stressful in bad weather and at night when your vision is impaired. So all these feelings are normal. In fact you need a certain amount of stress to make sure you’re concentrating.
What both Louise and Ray have in common is that they were both dealing with stressful situations outside of driving which compounded the pressure of driving.
Panic attack while driving: Common behaviours
Louise’s fear about driving on her own following a panic attack while driving is fairly common. Other behaviours which people who’ve experienced panic attacks in the car sometimes exhibit are avoiding motorways and avoiding driving in rush hour while driving.
Panic attack while driving: So what do you do about them?
In both of these cases the fear is of having a panic attack while driving. So what Ray and Louise need to deal with is their panic attacks.
There are things you can do when you’re driving which can help. Try playing your favourite music, something that you can sing-a-long to or listen to an audiobook. This will help distract you from panicking.
You may find that you feel short of breath during a panic attack. If so, learning how to control your breathing can give you control over your panic attacks. There’s a useful video demonstrating Yoga Breathing that you can watch on the Preventing Panic Attacks page.
These techniques may help but they won’t fix your panic attacks on their own.
Panic attack while driving: Dealing with panic attacks
Ultimately, if you’re having a panic attack while driving you need to deal with panic attacks and what’s causing them.
Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT Therapy) is an excellent way to treat panic attacks. It’s a talking therapy which helps you identify the thoughts that are triggering your attacks. Learn more about how to overcome panic attacks with CBT.