Fear of Driving and Automatic Negative Thoughts
The fear of driving is often complicated, if not caused by, the individuals’ automatic negative thoughts. These thoughts can be scary and irrational, such as the concern that they will veer into oncoming traffic or drive off a bridge, or they may be centered on the person’s physical feelings of anxiety such as a rapid heartbeat or dizziness. These thoughts are often described as the most bothersome symptom of driving anxiety and they can be the actual triggers for panic attacks while driving. Controlling these thoughts is critical to success in eliminating a driving phobia.
It is sometimes advised that the individual who has a fear of driving diligently try to stop their negative thoughts. Although this is well intentioned and the goal certainly is to reduce the quantity of these bothersome thoughts, the technique is inherently flawed. Requiring the individual to remember what not to think of infers that they have already thought it. It is akin to telling them to not think of a blue banana. The first thing they will think of is a blue banana because the very act of remembering what not to think of requires the thought that is intended to be avoided. Methods of mentally visualizing a stop sign or snapping oneself with a rubber band to train the mind to no longer have the thoughts is unfortunately an often suggested technique that is not recommended.
Scheduled Worry Time
Worry time is setting aside specific periods of time through the day, typically morning and evening, to devote to letting these thoughts run their course. For instance, a common thought associated with the fear of driving is that of being trapped and not being able to escape and losing control. For this thought, the individual would force themselves to ruminate on the thought twice a day for a predefined period of time. The intention is twofold. First, the thought becomes less powerful as the person becomes disinterested in it after repeatedly playing out the scenario mentally. Secondly, the technique teaches the person to be able to postpone their worrying until the designated time, which eventually may allow them to postpone the concern indefinitely.
We have seen moderate success with this approach for very isolated thoughts or specific driving fears. For instance, if there is a particular bridge that is bothersome, but not bridges in general. For the overall fear of driving, there are too many fearful thoughts to effectively use this technique for long term. It also does not foster the acceptance and understanding of the fearful thoughts and sensations that is so critical for success.
The vast majority of those with irrational, compulsive, and scary thoughts associated with a fear of driving are highly intelligent and creative people. Many of the bothersome thoughts they have are not based on historical evidence or fact (they have likely never responded in the manner they fear, yet the fear remains), and are created by their overactive creative imagination. These abilities allow the phobic person to play out situations in the mind very convincingly and this realism helps to perpetuate the fear. The Driving Fear program, which specialized in the treatment of driving phobias and anxiety has developed a technique which uses these creative skills to eliminate instead of perpetuate the bothersome thoughts. It actually allows the same traits which created the fear to end the fear.