Does driving make you anxious?
I’m sitting here in the car waiting for my mom to finish with a doctor’s appointment, and I thought I’d share with you an experience that she had recently around driving. She has given me permission to share this with you. In fact, she encouraged it, hoping that someone might resonate with it.
So we recently got back from a trip to Ireland, and it was an amazing, wonderful trip. We both prefer to avoid a lot of the touristy trap areas. We like to get off the beaten path, see the countryside, see more of the real hometown feel of things, especially remote countryside areas. So we rented a car to have access to that.
In Ireland there are a lot of roads, especially out in the countryside, that are much more narrow than what we’re used to in the US. There’s all these little, tiny country roads that are just a little bit wider than a single vehicle, but they are technically two lane roads. So you’ll be driving along this road and come to a turn, or crest a hill, and you’re waiting expectantly to see “is there another car coming at me?”
Sometimes there is. When there’s another car coming on the road, you both have to pull over as far as you can into the hedges. Off to the side of the road a little bit, so that you can squeeze past each other.
It’s a challenging experience, and most people in Ireland seem to manage this alright, but it’s not what either of us were used to. My mom, especially, had a lot of difficulty with this because, for as long as she can remember, she’s always had a lot of anxiety around driving and being on the road. It’s not to the point that it’s debilitating, it doesn’t stop her from going out, but it’s just when she does there’s this constant state of being on edge all the time.
It’s been like that for as long as I can remember, but about a year and a half ago she was in a minor car accident, she got rear ended by a drunk driver at a red light. She was okay physically, but it really did a number on that anxiety. It turned it from this low level anxiety that she’s always felt into (often) panic.
She’s never been really comfortable with the space of vehicles around her but now it’s like when driving on streets “every car is too close, and everything is too big, and everything is a danger.” When driving on the highway, and there’s large trailer trucks coming by, she will physically flinch. Sometimes flinch isn’t even a strong enough word for it, it is a full bodied panic response. It doesn’t matter whether she’s the driver or the passenger. It doesn’t matter how safe the driver is when she’s a passenger. It’s never safe enough.
My mom driving in Ireland
So we’re driving in Ireland on these really genuinely too small roads for two vehicles. Not just on the country roads, but in Dublin and other cities (we didn’t spend too much time in cities, but there’s a couple of things that we wanted to see, plus there’s the airport to get in and out). Anyway, we were doing a little bit of driving in Dublin, and through other towns, and villages, and whatever, but the roads are a lot more narrow.
They do legitimately have enough space for two cars to pass each other, but there isn’t that sort of buffer area that we’re used to in the US, where you have some extra space. It’s a lot tighter, and this was really stressing her out. Seriously intense. She was just in this nearly constant state of panic.
She was managing to get through it, she was even the one driving actually. We were planning on switching out drivers, so we would both drive some, but we didn’t realize ahead of time how much navigation would be involved and I am a much better navigator than she is. So I ended up doing all the navigation and she ended up doing all the driving.
So she was in this constant state of nervous system being on high alert. She was describing how it was hard for her to even take her eyes out of a very, very narrow set of just the road in front of her. And so I was keeping an eye on a lot of stuff around, because she was just really super hyper-focused. Not frozen, as in absolutely paralyzed, but to some extent that was the case.
After a few days, it was getting a little bit better. We did a lot of little bits of coaching here and there, just reframing it to “They’re on their side of the road, you’re on your side of the road. You can see the line on roads where there is a line.” Not all of the little country roads have that, but there’s a number of roads where you can see that they are on their side and you’re on your side.
She would talk herself through it when she’d be approaching a car, “They’re on their side. I’m on my side.” And that helped some. Then this thing happened about four days before we left. I’m not exactly sure why it happened just then, and she’s not either, but something shifted and she realized “They’re not coming at me, they’re coming towards me.”
When that clicked in her brain, she was driving down the road at the time and I was sitting next to her, I was watching this. She said that, and I could see her whole body just relax. It was a full body response. Her breathing became easier, her shoulders relaxed, and her hands weren’t as clenched on the steering wheel. She started looking around a little bit, tentatively at first, but over the next few days a lot.
She described later, “It was realizing that the other vehicles could inhabit the same space as me, but they weren’t out to get me. They weren’t coming for me, they weren’t attacking me.” This is how she’s been describing it, “They’re just coming towards me, they’re in the same space. They’re in my vicinity, but they’re not a danger to me.” That has changed everything for her since then. I’ve seen it and it’s just evolving more and more.
There was something inside her that, for her whole life to some extent (some points more and some points less, and especially the last year and a half since that accident), there’s been this thing of knowing that it wasn’t safe, “It’s dangerous because everyone out there is out to get me.”
Despite extensive evidence being in very, very few cars in her entire life in which anything bad has ever happened (especially compared to the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of times she’s been in vehicles throughout her life), it was like that didn’t seem to matter because there was this knowing that “they were all out to get me”. But in this moment in Ireland, it shifted.
We were talking about this after we got home a week later. It’s been so obvious that this has shifted not just driving for her, it’s shifted a lot more than that. This is one of those transformational moments in life where that one thing that shifts changes everything for you. I’ve had a few of those. A couple of really big ones, like what I think this is going to be for her. It’s gonna be one of those major life transformational moments.
We were talking about it, and I tried out this analogy on her and she very much agreed with it. I was asking her if it felt like someone had opened a prison door and she was let out. She said “yeah”, and then she said “it was like these chains fell off and I was free.” I get that, I’ve had those moments. I think what is going to happen is that it’s not going to be just this thing; I’ve already seen this in other areas of her life. It’s going to continue to grow into more and more areas.
Since we’ve been back she’s really had no problem with driving or being a passenger. It’s been so much easier for her. Big trucks will pass us and she just continues chitchatting, it’s no big deal. She sees it, she’s aware of it, but she’s not jumping out of her skin about it. She’s not clutching the side of the car, she’s not clutching the steering wheel when she’s driving.
In fact, a couple of days ago she was actually driving near our home and another car actually did cross the white line in the middle of the road onto her side, and she just drove around it. Just responded to it, adjusted her trajectory, and then continued on and didn’t think much of it. But then afterwards, she was like, “Oh wait! that just happened! I just did that, and it wasn’t a big deal! I just adjusted and it was fine!” She didn’t panic, she didn’t startle about it. She just adjusted, and that’s the difference between feeling cautious and alert and feeling in a panic about it.
Being cautious vs. panicking
In driving, you want to be cautious and alert. You want to be aware of what’s going on around you. You want to be safe, to see your environment, to not have this narrow focus about what you can see, to be able to take in enough information that you’re able to respond in real time, to know what’s going on.
That’s driving safely, but this level of panic, of startling at every little thing, it feels like it’s safer because you’re always afraid and that fear tells you that it’s keeping you safe. But it’s actually a much narrower focus on things so that you’re not able to respond as fluidly. You’re not able to adjust as easily in real time and take in as much information. It’s actually not a safer way to be.
But even the safety issues aside, just the calmness that I see in her now. She describes it as calm, as peace, she says there’s no other way that she can describe it. It’s just calm, and it’s peace, at a really, really deep level inside her.
She’s ready to make plans for things that she’s been wanting to do for ages. The things she keeps trying to get herself to do, and she likes the idea of, and she keeps intending to, but she’s trying to get over herself to make herself do these things. All of a sudden she’s almost having to hold herself back from doing too much. It’s completely different now, because things aren’t coming at her. They’re just coming towards her, they’re around her. They’re not attacking her, and that is revolutionary.
I love watching people go through these transformations. Partly because I remember myself going through them and I get to re-live that a little bit. It’s also just exciting to watch it in anyone, but especially this time getting to watch it with my mom. It’s really exciting and I’m so looking forward to seeing what develops for her. All these plans that she’s already starting to do. She’s getting up and going out on walks every morning because she wants to have more movement in her life and she’s not having to force herself. She’s just like, “I want to do this and I’m doing it.”
She’s getting less frustrated by things, and the parts of her brain that are creative, which have always been strong (that’s been one of her strongest suits), is turned on to a new level. It’s so cool to watch! It’s just there’s so many things that feel possible for her now that were a struggle before and I’m excited to see where it goes.
A couple weeks later
Okay, I am back. It’s been a few weeks since I recorded that video, and now that I’m editing it I wanted to give a quick update on how things are going for my mom with this shift. It is indeed one of those life transformational experiences for her in so many small and big ways.
She is making more progress and doing things that she wants to do more easily than she has ever before. Not to say that things aren’t still taking work (they are), but she says that it’s not forcing herself to do it: she’s wanting to do it.
She’s not getting frustrated by things as much when things don’t work out or when she can’t figure something out. She’s more likely to just be like, “Okay, fine. Figure out another way.” And she does! Rather than getting super flustered, or shutting down, or just having to leave it, she’ll keep trying different things and it doesn’t bother her as much.
She’s been in stores or events, other places where there’ve been a lot of people. Crowds have always been a really huge deal for her, and she’ll go to extreme lengths to avoid them (so will I but for different reasons), and for her those reasons are largely resolved now. She doesn’t mind being around a lot of people because she doesn’t feel like everyone is out to get her, to attack her. She feels safer in her own skin.
She’s still walking every morning, as I mentioned, and feeling good about it. She’s looking forward to it. And she’s making progress in other areas of her life. I’m not going to get into details, but things that she’s been wanting to do, has had dreams of doing, has been trying to do: They’re starting to happen very naturally and easily.
Yes, it takes work. She’s still putting a lot of work into them. But again, it’s easy work in the sense that she’s happy to do it. She’s not fighting against herself. There’s just a lot of things to do and she has to figure this stuff out, and it’s sometimes challenging, like with learning new things or new skills, but she feels like she can learn them. That mental shift is huge.
This is going to be a major thing. It’s already been a humongous, major thing. She’s dropping even more layers of mask, more layers of people pleasing. She’s just being able to be more naturally herself around other people. To set boundaries more easily, to work with pushback.
When someone gets a little bit upset at something, she’s not taking it as a personal attack or like she needs to back off. She can negotiate that space and come to a place where they both end up being happy about it. That’s just amazing to watch, like, “yay!”
Okay, so that’s my quick update. It’s only been about two months since we’ve been back from Ireland but things are still already huge for her. Over time, it’s just going to snowball. It’s going to be one of these upward spiraling success stories. I’m absolutely positive about that.