The Quarterlife Chronicles: Overcoming Driving Anxiety

This past Thursday, I hit a milestone that was many years in the making – I got my driver’s license!!!!!

My journey to getting to this point has been a little unusual, but I know a lot of people can relate to my driving anxiety because driving can be terrifying. When I was 16, I went to my local Department of Motor Vehicles center to go for my permit. As the youngest person in my group of friends, the wait and excitement for this day was almost unbearable. I had studied my butt of and aced the permit exam. I almost cried tears of joy because it felt like I was finally becoming an adult. Little did I know that I was in for a whirlwind of suck.

My last name on my birth certificate and social security card didn’t match because my Mom divorced my biological father when I was young and she was told that all she had to do was change my name on my ss card to change my name officially. Despite going by my name for most of my life, I had to wait to get my permit until I was 18 (when I would be allowed to change my name without needing the permission of my biological father who I haven’t seen sine I was little because he is not allowed to legally contact me for safety reasons).

It was such a long and expensive process to change my name, but I was finally able to get my name change and I.D. when I was 20. After that I was pressured to get my permit and license. Getting my permit was a walk in the park, but I was terrified just thinking about getting behind the wheel. My mom was an awful driver and I live near a city that has terrible traffic and unexpected construction projects. What made me even more anxious was when my boyfriend and I were traveling out of state to visit his family for Thanksgiving and our car spun out of control due to awful, icy road conditions and ended up in a ditch on the side of the road. We and the car were fine, but we were stuck there for a while. Luckily, AAA came to save the day and we made it to our destination safely. However, I would replay that moment in my head any time someone would ask me when I was going to get on the road.

My anxiety (and I know it presents this way for others) consists of me imagining the worst case scenarios for various situations. For the longest time I would picture myself having a panic attack while on the road and causing a fatal accident. When people would bug me about driving, I would start to resent them and not want to spend time with them. Not being able to drive negatively impacted my life. I lost touch with friends who lived far from me because I couldn’t go to parties or just hang out with them whenever we wanted. I missed certain opportunities because I didn’t have a consistent means of transportation. I’m very lucky that my Pap would help me out by riding me to places, but when you don’t drive, you start to feel stuck. Not driving made me feel like I was stuck in stasis and that my life would never change. I had so many panic attack and tear-filled nights because I would see my friends do amazing things that I could have been able to participate in had I had my license and a car. At the same time, because there was so much riding on me driving, I felt an immense amount of pressure, but I was stuck in the cycle of anxiety.

So you’re probably wondering, what changed regarding my anxiety?

Therapy (but not what you think). I never specifically addressed my driving anxiety in therapy because I figured once I got my Generalized Anxiety and depression in check, I would be in a much better head space to tackle driving. It worked! I learned healthy ways to come with my anxiety (venting, finding what I could change in a situation, exercise, eating better, etc.) and in turn learned to love and respect myself more. My depression was die to certain situation in my life that I couldn’t control or wasn’t changing enough and learning Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and mindfulness techniques helped me reign in my “despressed” thoughts. Investing in learning how to drive and empowering myself became more of a priority once I wanted to live and make the most of life.

Find a motivator. For me, it was getting to the point where I couldn’t deal with missing opportunities that could change my life regarding my career. For a job that I was just hired for that is one of the coolest, career-making opportunities I’ve ever received, I needed to have my license and a car. I wouldn’t have been able to even interview for it had I not got my license. Another source of motivation was that my boyfriend has to travel out of state for work a lot this summer and I didn’t want to be stuck at home while he is gone. Think of whatever getting your license or overcoming anxiety can give you. The biggest selling point for me was independence.

I tried the “slow and steady” method. I would only try learning to drive when I felt like it. Sometimes I would go weeks and months without driving, but eventually I would try driving around the neighborhood or in school parking lots on a nice day. Then I moved on to trying to drive at night for fun things, like going to get food.

I tried to find what I could control. People reminded me that I could pull over to the side of the road or in a parking lot if I felt overwhelmed while on the road.  That reminded me that I had some sort of control if I thought at any point I would be unsafe on the road. I also was told that I need to focus on driving safe because I can’t control what other people do, but I can work on reacting as safely as possible.

I got a driving instructor. This has been integral to overcoming my anxiety. I was very lucky that there was a reputable driving instructor who happened to live in my community that would drive to my place to give me lessons. I would drive to the DMV and we practiced everything I needed to know for my test since a huge reason why I put off getting my license was that also have test anxiety. I practiced the course, parallel parking, and every other possible thing I needed to know so I was comfortable when test time came. It really helped. I know I messed up a few things (my instructor’s car was a little different from the Jeep I normally drive), but I got my license and know how to drive safely.

I practiced (and practiced and practiced). After a certain point, getting more driving in before my test became a almost a game to me. My boyfriend joked that I was his “chauffeur” because I would drive us anywhere and everywhere. To his parents who live 3 hours away. To the city. To parks. I wanted to challenge myself to drive further and in different conditions (while maintaining safety of course) and that I did. The practice made me more comfortable and my instructor told me that she was happy I was getting the practical practice on top of just what I need to know for the test since driving is about more than just getting your license. I even drove through one of the scariest bridges in my city that most people I know have a hard time because it’s a 4 lane bridge and it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected.

The last few pieces of my driving anxiety are driving alone and driving to a new place. I drove GW (the Great White Jeep aka my boyfriend’s Jeep) by myself the other day and I wanted to cry tears of joy. It was a little hectic because we live on a highway, but I survived. It felt so good to have that independence I always wanted. In August, my boyfriend and I will be visiting a friend who lives pretty far away from us (almost 3 states away from us) and I’m so happy that I have my license so he doesn’t have to drive the whole 10 hours it will take to get there. I’m nervous about having to use the GPS while my boyfriend sleeps, but I’ll let that go until the time for it comes. I become stronger every time I overcome an aspect of my anxiety, but I won’t berate myself for residual anxiety, especially since all people experience some sort of anxiety. My anxiety is no longer debilitating and I have a good cry instead of having panic attacks, which is huge!

Now I’m on to the next steps, buying my first car and prepping for the next semester and my new job in the fall. I’m so proud of the progress I’ve made and that my self confidence has been the highest its ever been. If you’re dealing with driving anxiety, I hope the tips I shared help you get closer to the life and independence you deserve!



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