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Fear when driving a car: where it comes from and what helps against it

Heavy traffic, gloomy tunnels, narrow construction sites or darkness: Many drivers then have a queasy feeling, but for some it turns into real driving fear. But there is help. Those affected and experts tell their story and explain.

  • Fear of getting behind the wheel: how and why it comes about

  • The causes and triggers can also lie outside the traffic

  • Special therapies and driver training help

When the autobahn at a construction site narrows down to two narrow lanes for kilometers, the road users drive closer and the trucks come into close contact, some motorists feel uncomfortable. But with Janina it was different, she got panic attacks. Palpitations, sweats and the fear of fainting spells were her constant companions for 20 years. Those affected by these and other symptoms suffer fromFear of driving, also known asAmaxophobia.

Driving fear can lurk anywhere

"The dizziness came out of nowhere. I felt like I was trapped," says the 40-year-old about the moment when driving became a threat to her for the first time. "I had panic and anxiety symptoms especially on multi-lane highways and at construction sites." In the years that followed, fear crept more and more into her life until she no longer dared to take the autobahn.
Many people are afraid of making mistakes while driving. The root cause for the uncertainty can also go through lack of driving experience be justified. This form of fear can occur in novice drivers as well as experienced drivers who have not been behind the wheel for a long time.

Triggers are often bad events, for example experiencing or observing a traffic accident. But it can also be experiences that are not related to road traffic, such as the loss of a loved one. The fear behind the wheel can increase over time and spread from certain situations, such as driving through a tunnel or crossing a bridge, to other, unspecific locations. At some point, those affected no longer dare to get behind the wheel.

Symptoms and Effects

Physical symptoms Examples of fear of driving include racing heart, accelerated breathing, sweating, twitching eyes and nervousness. The psychological effects include, among other things, a feeling of stress, malaise and the urge to want to escape the situation.

TheFear behind the wheelshould be taken very seriously, especially if it triggers panic attacks. On the one hand, those affected put themselves in danger because they can no longer properly control the driving situation. On the other hand, panic can spread more and more, for example on the plane or in the supermarket. In such cases it is advisable to seek therapeutic help.

What to do if you panic at the wheel

Admitting the problem to yourself takes a lot of strength. And actually thousands in Germany suffer from driving anxiety, the number of unreported cases is high. But thePanic behind the wheelcan be fought, says Alexandra Bärike, a qualified psychologist and driving instructor. Throughout Germany, she helps those affected with confrontation training.

"I work with people returning after a long break from driving, but also with people who used to enjoy driving, like you and me. For many people, fear of driving suddenly occurs in different situations - for some in heavy city traffic, for others on the autobahn is important to encourage those affected, "she explains.

Many affectedavoid, for example, highways,but have no problems when driving in the dense traffic of a city center, also because it is slower there.

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Stress while driving a car

Driving instructors can help with training

The driving instructor and sociologist Frank Müller is also an expert on fear. He offers training and works with therapists. In his Berlin driving school he takes care of his "fearful rabbits" and has onesupport groupbrought to life. "The majority of those affected are female, but there are also male fearful rabbits," says Müller. It often just takes them longer to admit their problem.
Like 30-year-old Felix. Despite his driving license, he preferred to use public transport. "Bicyclists, parked cars, big intersections - the city traffic is blatant. There was always some situation that stressed me out when I was driving," he says. From time to time he didn't like the place behind the wheel as much, and the intervals between his journeys got bigger and bigger.

The causes of anxiety when driving a car

Felix isn't the only one whose fear has increased over time. Many of those affected are in a vicious circle. "Fear means that driving is increasingly avoided. And those who hardly drive or not at all experience nothing positive behind the wheel," explains driving instructor Müller.

The causes of driving fear are different: a traumatic experience like an accident, the painting of worst-case scenarios or theFear of endangering others. AlsoConstant stress can be a reason for fear of driving. "It is a breeding ground for physical and psychological problems. In some it causes burnout or depression, in others it causes anxiety," says psychologist Bärike. In such cases, supervised training is often not enough, and those affected should seek therapeutic help.

What to do if you are afraid of driving

"It is important to be aware of your fear of driving and to face the problem. This is the only way to develop solution-oriented behavior," says Ulrich Chiellino, traffic psychologist at ADAC. "Being honest with yourself, talking to family and friends, and journaling your anxiety can help."

If someone feels unsafe due to a lack of driving experience, you canRefresher courses or driver safety training be the solution. Many driving schools offer corresponding courses with specially trained driving instructors. In general, conversations as well as breathing and muscle relaxation exercises alleviate nervousness while driving. Speaking loudly, for example, calms breathing.

However, if the fear goes beyond a feeling of discomfort, supervised training courses or self-help groups from experts can help. "In the case of anxiety disorders that can be traced back to constant stress and deeper psychological causes and that manifest themselves in panic attacks, the way to a traffic psychologist or therapist is indispensable," recommends Ulrich Chiellino.

Driving training can help

Some of those affected face their fear and decide in favor of training - often with success: After an intensive preliminary talk, they head out into the "wilderness" in the driving school car. With the driving instructor at their side, those affected slowly approach their fear zones: For example, they start in a quiet area with wide streets before moving into the dense city traffic.
"The next step is to switch to the fearful rabbit's vehicle. I can no longer intervene," explains Müller. Conversations andRelaxation exercises relieve nervousness. The number of driving hours is determined individually.

After the training, those affected have to stay on the ball by integrating potentially dangerous situations into their everyday driving and facing them as often as possible. "Fear doesn't just go away. But diligent training helps to deal with it," says Bärike.

Here you will find further important information about safe driving.

To take part in a supervised driver training course yourself, you can contact Alexandra Bärike * or Frank Müller *. Information on other driving instructors who specialize in driving fear can be found at the Federal Association of Driving Instructors' Associations e.V. *

For therapeutic help, you can contact the Federal Association of Resident Traffic Psychologists * or the Professional Association of German Psychologists *.

Text: Sarah Kurz. Technical advice: Ulrich Chiellino / ADAC Transport Department.

* By clicking on the link you will be redirected to an external website, for the content of which the respective website operator is responsible.

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