Written by Cariad Martin


Shut up and drive

Terrified of getting behind the wheel? Cariad Martin’s been there and bought the gloves. And she has some tips for you.

Illustration by Claire Jones.

Illustration by Claire Jones.

Learning to drive doesn’t come easily to everyone, but for most people, a year or so after passing their test, it becomes second nature.

Unfortunately for me, even years after passing my test (first time), my anxiety was still so acute, it felt as though I was being asked to bungee jump or skydive to work and back every day.

I was overcome with dread on a daily basis, and it was only a chance reading of an article which argued the only difference between anxiety and phobia was avoidance, that I didn’t jack it in all together. I was determined not to let cortisol win.

But it took a lot of time and effort, and when I turned to the internet for support, it seemed all the guidance was for people who couldn’t bear to even sit behind the wheel of a car. Some of us do drive; we’re just fucking terrified of it.

Please note that the steps below are just things that worked for me, personally, a competent driver in a small seaside town, who was pretty calm once behind the wheel. If you feel that your anxiety makes your driving unsafe, please seek professional help before attempting to drive again.

Identify your fear

Think of the most hopeless, incompetent person you know. Do they drive? Probably. Then absolutely you can, too. Your anxiety is telling you things that aren’t true, blowing risks way out of proportion and shining a glaring spotlight on minor errors and weaknesses that in reality are shared by everybody.

You need to work out what exactly you are most afraid of in order to fix it. Are you worried you will cause an accident? Do you fear getting hit by lorries on the motorway? Is it roundabouts? Driving alone?

“Once I’d conquered Ashford’s hellish J9 roundabouts without missing a single word of B.o.B’s Magic, I knew I was cured.”

I was, inexplicably, terrified of making mistakes, so I switched to an automatic car, which eliminated the possibility of gear change errors (that I’d never had problems with in the first place). It wasn’t the simplest (or cheapest) of fixes, but it was the single biggest factor in enabling me to get in to my car in the morning without wanting to be sick.

Get a phobia buddy

You may be able to do this alone, but I couldn’t. Without my partner I would still be taking the bus. He took on the responsibility of everything other than driving. He took my car once a week to fill it with fuel and when we bought the automatic he test-drove it for me (I couldn’t have imagined driving with a stranger in the car).

He was also, crucially, on hand to give me a lift if I ever felt too overwhelmed to drive. I never needed it, but knowing that if I drove somewhere but couldn’t drive home then he could come and get me, was a vital safety net that enabled me to make the journey in the first place.

Make a bangin’ playlist

If you haven’t already got one, get yourself an auxiliary input cable and hit Spotify/iTunes for a playlist of 10-20 of the most uplifting songs you can think of.

Don’t just pick your favourite songs, especially if your Most Played reads like the background music of a wake. There’s no room for integrity here; let your guilty pleasures free. Think 80s cheese, 00s pop punk, whatever songs make you feel invincible.

Once I’d conquered Ashford’s hellish J9 roundabouts without missing a single word of B.o.B’s Magic, I knew I was cured.

Drive often

Most driving lessons are weekly, and for the driving-phobic although it seems like a relief to have seven long days in between, that gives your brain a lot of time to tie itself in knots again. Additionally, if you only drive occasionally it will take you a lot longer to feel familiar with the car, and to know instinctively where the lights, windscreen wipers, etc, are located.

“Think of the most hopeless, incompetent person you know. Do they drive? Probably. Then absolutely you can, too.”

For me, there was a period of three or four days where I was required to make maybe 10 work journeys, which was a huge turning point. Taking spontaneous journeys without hours or days to stress about it is a good idea.

Give yourself a break

Entirely oppositional to the previous point, don’t force yourself to drive if you are feeling exhausted from a daily pummelling of cortisol. Take a day off, treat yourself to a taxi.

If the event at the other end of the journey is stress-inducing, say a job interview or an emotionally fraught family dinner, don’t punish yourself further by forcing yourself to drive. Just try not to let the break linger more than a day or two, or you’ll feel back to square one.

Remember your autonomy

Things changed for me the day a therapist told me, “You know, you don’t have to drive.” I had been so overwhelmed by my struggle, I forgot that I was actually doing it because I wanted to.

You don’t have to drive. You can take the bus or walk if you want to. Even if you do have a licence and a car, you don’t have to drive every day. Some days, it may be cheaper and easier to take the car, other days you may fancy a carefree iPod session on the long, winding bus journey through the back streets. And on those days, fuck it, you may as well treat yourself to a drink with lunch.


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Written by Cariad Martin

Cariad Martin is a feminist writer and former reviews editor at For Books’ Sake. She is also a Rainbow, Brownie and Guide leader and trash TV enthusiast. She blogs at www.cariadontoast.com.