Driving Phobias

Fear of Driving on Highways, Overpasses, and Bridges

By Steve Reed, LPC, LMSW, LMFT
driving phobias fear of driving

In my practice, I treat people from coast to coast who are scared of driving.  Most of the larger cities in the U.S. present challenges to drivers who are scared due to inexperience or who have developed an irrational fear of driving (a phobia) after many years of driving comfortably.  One such city is the Dallas - Fort Worth metroplex (DFW), the 4th largest metropolitan area in the U.S.  Unfortunately, it is not known for having good public transportation.  However, what it does have in abundance is a huge system of highways and toll roads.  This vast multi-lane road system is connected with some of the highest overpasses and bridges imaginable.  From a distance, they often look like a vast roller-coaster of interweaving and high-flying launching ramps.  One thing is for sure, the architects who designed them did not have any type of driving phobia.  However, many people are nervous drivers and some have a full-blown fear of driving.

A survey of 1,500 people conducted in January 2020 found that 44% of respondents feared driving in certain conditions.  This included:

  • 21% who had a fear of driving in bad weather conditions
  • 11% felt some driving anxiety alongside large trucks
  • 5% had a fear of bridges or driving through tunnels

For individuals who have developed a driving phobia, also known as Vehophobia, DFW and other large cities across the U.S. can be frightening places to drive.  The cities within DFW have spread out so much that the highway system is nearly unavoidable.  For instance, if you lived in McKinney, Frisco, or Allen and you needed to go to Highland Park or Dallas, well good luck getting there without getting on the highways.  It could take hours via the back roads.

What if you lived in Garland, Rockwall, or Rowlett and needed to get to Irving, Lewisville, Flower Mound, or Denton?  Again, you could spend much of the day traveling if you had a fear of driving on the freeways.

My clients from Plano and Richardson, Texas battle two of the largest highway and overpass complexes in the Dallas area.  One is the intersection of the Bush Turnpike and U.S. Highway 75.  The other is the infamous "High 5" where U.S. Highway 75 intersects with the LBJ Freeway (Interstate 635).

There is plenty of fuel for the fire of anxiety in DFW if you suffer from one of several types of driving phobias.  But DFW is not alone.  The fear of driving in big cities is widespread.  The fear of driving on highways in Houston, Seattle, Milwaukee, and Los Angeles is common.

High Stress, High Anxiety Driving

Some circumstances that phobic drivers encounter on the roads can trigger high stress and severe driving anxiety.  This can lead to a fear of accidents (dystychiphobia), a fear of travel (hodophobia), or performance anxiety if others are in the car.  People that I treat for a fear of driving report problems with one or more of the following situations:

  • Fast-moving cars (well over the speed limit)
  • Being between 18-wheelers
  • Cars weaving in and out of lanes
  • Driving close to concrete construction barricades
  • Construction zones
  • Driving in the center or left lane
  • Cars coming up from behind fast
  • Driving in rain or snow
  • Bridges
  • Huge multi-lane highways
  • Towering Overpasses

overpass driving phobias

Other conditions that produce driving anxiety for people include:

  • Fear of mountain roads
  • Fear of driving on highways
  • Fear of driving alone
  • Fear of driving at night
  • Fear of merging on highways
  • Fear of driving after an accident

Although people can certainly develop some degree of driving anxiety or a full-blown driving phobia that relates to small local roads, most of the people that I treat have some combination of the situations outlined above.  These conditions can trigger intense anxiety and even panic attacks.

Driving Anxiety Symptoms

There are many symptoms associated with driving anxiety.  Most are physical symptoms of distress that are expressed in the body as a result of the fight-or-flight reflex being activated.  These can include symptoms on the list below.

  • Jittery feeling
  • Queasy feeling
  • Tight throat
  • Lightheaded
  • Heavy feeling in the shoulders
  • Chest tight
  • Pressure in the chest
  • Heavy feeling in the chest
  • Restricted breathing
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Butterflies in the stomach
  • A knot in the stomach
  • Tightness in the stomach
  • Shaky arms/hands
  • A trembling feeling
  • Tenseness
  • Hot/cold sweats

For a longer list of driving anxiety symptoms, you can download my PDF on physical symptoms of distress.  However, this is still not an all-inclusive list.  You may experience additional symptoms of stress and anxiety that are unique to you.

Feeling Overwhelmed by a Fear of Driving

For many people, the stress of their work and their lives is almost more than they can handle.  However, for those who also suffer from driving phobias - whether bridges, overpasses or highways, etc. - the extra stress from having to deal with driving can become overwhelming.  Feeling overwhelmed from a buildup of cumulative stress can contribute to the formation of phobias in the first place or it can cause a fear response to spread to new situations.

Panic Attacks

Many of the people that I have worked with in therapy have had such powerfully intense bouts of anxiety that they were startled by their physical symptoms.  The sensations of distress in the chest were so strong that they actually thought that they were having a heart attack.  Of course, after emergency room visits, they were reassured that their heart was fine.  However, they had experienced a panic attack.  Panic attacks are so traumatic for people that if they occur while driving one or more of the driving phobias can form.

How Phobias Form

I have observed driving phobias forming in one of two ways.

  1. A driver experiences an acute high-stress event.  This could include an injury auto accident, an accident where the motorist feared that they would die, or any other driving-related situation where the fear of injury or death was extreme.  This could include one's car being caught in high water for example.
  2. A person's stress load has gradually built up to a breaking point.  Then, some stressful event happens while driving and that stress, combined with all of their previous life stress, culminates in them feeling overwhelmed and emotionally flooded.  These are the "last straw" threshold events that push a person beyond their coping capacity.  The resulting effect is a moment of panic and the imprinting of intense fear in the emotional midbrain.

When this happens, the alarm center of the midbrain becomes conditioned to set off the alarm if any reminder of that stressful event takes place.  From that point on, the midbrain makes a mistake and sets off a false alarm response in those driving conditions.  Your sympathetic nervous system is activated and you begin to feel all of those unpleasant symptoms of "fight-or-flight" that you associate with the fear of driving.  A driving phobia is born.

How to Overcome Driving Phobias (Vehophobia Treatment)

You can learn how to overcome the phobia of driving and how to drive without fear. This is accomplished through driving anxiety treatment which focuses on retraining the anxious brain.  I have developed a precise three-step treatment process that is helping people to learn how to overcome the fear of driving in general and the fear of driving on highways, bridges, and overpasses specifically.  So if you are tired of being scared of driving, then here are the ABCs of driving phobia treatment.

A.  Behavioral Counter-Conditioning of Traumatic and Panic Memories while Driving

This type of counseling involves the use of leading-edge and evidence-based treatment methods to help retrain the midbrain alarm center to associate comfort and relaxation with old stressful memories.  Interventions that have been shown to calm the sympathetic nervous system, to reach and soothe the midbrain include:

  1. Quick REMAP
  2. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)

B.  Virtual Reality Desensitization

I have the person I am treating to take videos of challenging driving conditions.  OK, sometimes, their spouse or a friend will take the videos for them if they are too uncomfortable to even do so as a passenger.  Then, I can have them watch the videos as we work with the treatment methods mentioned above to desensitize the distress related to the videos.

Once we have treated the old painful memories regarding driving and treated their reactions to videos of challenging driving conditions, then we are ready for the last phase of therapy.

fear of over passes driving phobias

C.  Real-Life Exposure Therapy

This is where we take the treatment to the streets.  It involves three parts.

  1. Starting with small challenges and working up to more daunting ones, you will begin to drive in those previously uncomfortable conditions.  Using multiple exposures to the same section of a highway or bridge, with every repetition of the test drive, your midbrain will learn to associate self-soothing techniques and calmness with driving.
  2. In therapy sessions, we will debrief about your therapeutic homework assignments.  Here I will provide additional desensitization therapy as necessary to make it easier.
  3. If there are any automatic negative thoughts that interfere with your comfort or progress, then we will treat those thoughts with cognitive therapy interventions.

In addition to these key steps, we also focus on any scary thoughts about driving that tend to also trick the brain into setting off the alarm response.  In this portion of the fear of driving treatment, we use CBT (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy) to restructure or change negative thoughts.

All of these therapy components, if done precisely and repeatedly, can result in a return to comfort while driving.  Driving phobias no longer have to get in the way of your work or recreation.  I have successfully treated many people who are now free from the fear of driving.  I look forward to being of help to you as well.

Treatment is available by phone or video appointments for individuals anywhere in the U.S.A.

USA Cities and Highways Driving Phobia
Including Albuquerque, Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, Dallas, Denver, Fort Worth, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Portland, Raleigh-Durham, San Antonio, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, Seattle, Tampa, and Washington DC.

For Driving Anxiety Help call to arrange an appointment.

Call 972-997-9955 or email Steve at stevereed@psychotherapy-center.com  

Treatment is also provided for people having panic attacks or anxiety while flying, during airplane turbulence, on elevators, and involving heights.

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