September 5


Driving Dread: What Causes Panic Attacks Behind the Wheel?

By Joshua Turner

September 5, 2023

Driving can be a stressful experience for many people, but for some, it can trigger panic attacks. These sudden and intense episodes of fear can cause physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, and difficulty breathing.

While they can occur in any situation, they are ubiquitous while driving, and understanding the causes of such agitating episodes while behind the wheel can help individuals take steps to manage and prevent them.

One possible cause is a fear of losing control. Various factors, such as heavy traffic, bad weather, or unfamiliar roads, can trigger this fear. Additionally, individuals who have experienced a traumatic event while driving, such as an accident or a close call, may be more likely to develop a fear of driving and experience them.

Other potential causes include anxiety, panic disorders, and certain medical conditions like heart disease and hyperthyroidism.

Key Takeaways

Understanding Panic Attacks

Defining Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are sudden episodes of intense fear that can occur without warning. They can cause various physical symptoms, including rapid heart rate, chills, chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, trembling, shaking, nausea, dizziness, lightheadedness, numbness, and tingling sensations. They can be distressing and debilitating and interfere with daily life.

The body’s natural “fight or flight” response is triggered, despite the lack of real danger. This can cause a surge of adrenaline, leading to the physical symptoms of a panic attack. A variety of factors, including stress, anxiety, and phobias can trigger them.

It’s important to note that they are not the same as anxiety attacks. While anxiety attacks can also cause physical symptoms, they are typically less intense and don’t always involve a feeling of impending doom or a fear of dying or choking.

If you experience these while driving, seek help from a mental health professional. They can help you identify triggers and develop coping strategies to manage your symptoms.

Causes of Panic Attacks While Driving

Stress and Anxiety

Stress and anxiety are common causes because driving can be stressful due to traffic, time constraints, or the fear of getting lost. Anxiety can also be triggered by past traumatic events or phobias related to driving. These factors can cause panic, leading to physical symptoms such as sweating, rapid heartbeat, and shortness of breath.

Phobias and Fear

Specific phobias related to driving, such as fear of highways or bridges, can also cause these episodes. These phobias can be rooted in past traumatic events or experiences, such as a car accident or witnessing one. Fear of driving can also develop from a lack of knowledge or confidence behind the wheel.

Traumatic Events

Traumatic events, such as car accidents or witnessing one, can lead to the development of driving anxiety and panic attacks. These events can cause a fear of driving or being in a car, leading to physical symptoms of panic while driving.


Genetic Factors

Genetics can also play a role in the development of panic attacks while driving. Studies have shown that individuals with a family history of anxiety disorders or panic attacks may be more susceptible to developing these conditions.

Signs and Symptoms of Panic Attacks While Driving

Physical Symptoms

When experiencing panic attacks while driving, physical symptoms can be overwhelming. They include sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, and nausea. These can cause drivers to feel like they are having a heart attack or serious medical issues.

Emotional Symptoms

In addition, it can also cause emotional symptoms. These can include feelings of fear, anxiety, and impending doom. Drivers may also experience a sense of detachment from reality or feel like they are losing control. These can make it difficult for drivers to focus on the road and lead to accidents.

Keep in mind that the symptoms vary from person to person. Some individuals may experience only a few, while others may experience a combination of physical and emotional signs. Additionally, their severity can also vary from mild to severe.

If you experience any warning signs while driving, pull over to a safe location and seek medical attention. Ignoring them can lead to accidents and severe health consequences.

Anxiety and Panic Disorders

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by excessive and persistent worry about everyday things. People with GAD may experience physical symptoms such as muscle tension, fatigue, and irritability. They can interfere with daily activities and make it difficult to concentrate or relax.

Panic Disorder

Panic Disorder is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by sudden and intense panic attacks. They can cause physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, and heart palpitations. People may experience these attacks unexpectedly and avoid situations or places where they fear a panic attack.

Specific Phobia

Specific Phobia is an anxiety disorder characterized by an intense and persistent fear of a particular object or situation. Common phobias include fear of spiders, heights, and flying. Those with this disorder may avoid the object or situation they fear, which can interfere with daily activities.

Anxiety disorders, including GAD, Panic Disorder, and Specific Phobia, can all contribute to the condition. People with anxiety disorders may experience heightened anxiety or panic in situations that are perceived as threatening, such as going on a busy highway or crossing a bridge. Understanding the underlying causes can help individuals manage their symptoms and seek appropriate treatment.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Consulting a Healthcare Professional

See a healthcare professional if you suspect you have panic attacks while driving. They can evaluate your symptoms, rule out any underlying medical conditions, and provide a diagnosis. A mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, can also help determine if you have an anxiety disorder.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common treatment. This therapy helps you identify negative thought patterns and behaviors.

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy is a type of CBT that involves gradually exposing yourself to the situations that trigger them. This can help you desensitize yourself to the fear and anxiety associated with driving. Your therapist may also teach you relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, to help you manage your symptoms.


If you experience panic attacks while driving, seek help from a healthcare professional. CBT, including exposure therapy, can be an effective treatment for managing them and reducing anxiety.

Coping Strategies and Management

Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques are one of the most effective ways to manage the episodes. Deep breathing exercises can help you feel more in control and reduce the intensity of your symptoms.

Progressive muscle relaxation is another technique that can help you release muscle tension and calm your mind. Listening to relaxing music or guided meditations can also help reduce stress and anxiety.

Lifestyle Changes

Making lifestyle changes can also help. Avoiding caffeine and other stimulants can reduce anxiety and prevent them. Sleeping and exercising can also help reduce stress and improve your overall well-being. Keeping a journal to track your triggers and symptoms can help you identify patterns and develop coping strategies. Finding distractions such as podcasts or engaging your senses with essential oils or aromatherapy can help reduce anxiety and keep your mind occupied.

Managing panic attacks while driving is an ongoing process, and finding the right coping strategies that work for you may take time. Seek professional help if needed, and always prioritize your safety on the road.

Impact and Complications

Quality of Life

Fear of driving and avoidance of specific routes or situations can limit a person’s ability to travel and participate in daily activities. It can lead to feelings of isolation, frustration, and even depression. Some may also struggle with anxiety in other areas of their life.

Driving Safety

The fear of losing control or experiencing a panic attack can cause drivers to avoid certain situations or even stop driving altogether. This can lead to difficulties with transportation and limit a person’s independence. If a panic attack does occur while driving, it can be dangerous for the driver and others on the road.

Bridges and Tunnels

Bridges and tunnels are common triggers. The enclosed space and lack of exit options can cause claustrophobia and anxiety. Drivers may also be afraid of heights or the potential for a bridge or tunnel collapse. Avoiding these situations can limit a person’s ability to travel and participate in daily activities.

Fear of Driving

The fear of driving, also known as driving phobia or vehophobia, is a common issue for those who experience panic attacks while driving. This fear can be caused by various factors, including past traumatic experiences, fear of losing control, or fear of being in an accident. It can be a debilitating condition that affects a person’s ability to travel and participate in daily activities.

Lost Control

The fear of losing control can lead to avoidance of certain situations or even stopping driving altogether. Drivers need to understand that they are not a sign of weakness and that they can seek help to manage their symptoms and regain control of their driving.

Support and Resources

Family and Friends

One of the most critical support systems for individuals experiencing this is their family and friends. Loved ones can provide emotional support and understanding during difficult times. They can also offer practical assistance, such as accompanying the person on drives or helping them find alternative transportation.


Professional Help

For individuals who need more specialized support, professional help is available. Counseling can be an effective way to learn coping strategies and address underlying issues.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) are great resources for finding licensed therapists and mental health professionals in your area. A healthcare provider may also prescribe medications to help manage symptoms.

Seeking support and resources is a sign of strength and courage. Whether it’s from family and friends or professional help, many options are available to help individuals overcome the fear.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the symptoms of a panic attack while driving?

Symptoms can include sweating, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, dizziness, and a feeling of impending doom. They can be overwhelming and cause a driver to lose control of their vehicle.

How can I manage my anxiety while driving?

Several ways to manage anxiety while driving include deep breathing exercises, listening to calming music, and practicing mindfulness. Identify the source of the fear and address it directly to prevent future panic attacks.

What are some techniques to stop a panic attack while driving?

If you feel a panic attack coming on while driving, try to pull over to a safe location as soon as possible. Practice deep breathing exercises, focus on grounding techniques like counting or naming objects around you, and remind yourself that the panic attack will pass.

Can medication help with driving anxiety?

Medication can be prescribed, but it’s necessary to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any medicine. Some can cause drowsiness or impair driving ability.

What are some common triggers for panic attacks while driving?

Common triggers can include traffic congestion, driving on highways or bridges, fear of getting lost, and past traumatic experiences while driving. Identifying these triggers can help prevent future panic attacks.

How can I break the cycle of panic attacks while driving?

Breaking the cycle involves identifying and addressing the anxiety’s source. Practice relaxation techniques, seek professional help if necessary, and gradually expose yourself to driving situations that trigger anxiety to build confidence and overcome fear.

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