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Learning to drive

Learning to drive with anxiety

Please bear in mind that I'm not a mental health specialist - I'm just an anxious person who learned to drive.
If you're really struggling with anxiety, talk to your GP.

How I learned to drive with anxiety

Entering a room when you struggle with anxiety can be tough. Learning to drive with anxiety can be VERY tough.

Source: I did it. It took me over a year and 5 driving tests but I did it. And you can too.

Now, everyone is different. You may have panic attacks, which are obviously very debilitating, or you might just have trouble sleeping the night before your driving lessons.

However you experience it, there are a few things I did (and some I wish I had!) that might help you deal with driving anxiety as you head towards your test.

How you can approach learning to drive if you're anxious about it

  1. Get help with choosing a driving instructor

    It's one of the most important relationships you'll ever have: your driving instructor is responsible for making sure you're safe on the road FOR LIFE. And yet, most people just pick whoever's cheapest and struggle through even if they're not that happy.

    Although no driving instructor is going to be right for everyone, you might feel less anxious about driving with someone a friend had a good experience with. My instructor taught my big sister and little brother, so I knew a bit about him and we already had things to talk about. Like my brother backing the car into a tree.

    A really good idea is to meet an instructor before you choose - just a quick 5 minutes, maybe with your parents, so you can have a chat about what will happen and get a feel for what they're like. You can always decide they're not for you afterwards.

    Get more advice on picking a driving instructor.
  2. Find out what to expect from your first driving lesson

  3. I don't know about you, but I can manage my anxiety best when I know what's going to happen. Overplanning is never a good idea because you'll freeze if something doesn't go how you thought - but KNOWLEDGE is power.

    Arm yourself with information about the first driving lesson. Talk to other people about their experiences. Ask the driving instructor you've chosen what you'll go through.

    One thing I can promise you now: you will not be expected to drive on a big road right away.

    Here's what you can probably expect from your first driving lesson:
    • Your driving instructor will arrive and knock on your door
    • You'll go out to the car and get in the passenger seat
    • Your instructor will drive to a quiet place nearby and park
    • For the first 5 minutes, you'll probably just talk about what you'll be doing
    • You'll then swap seats and go through all the car's controls
    • Once you're OK with where everything is, you'll talk through how to start the car and make it move forwards safely
    • Time to give it a try; it's perfectly normal if you stall the car straight away - we've all been there!

    Feeling anxious is totally understandable because the first driving lesson is a stressful situation for anyone. If you're a bit jittery or on edge beforehand, that doesn't mean you can't cope with the situation; just take your time and remember your instructor is there to support you.

    If you don't understand something, don't just worry about it - ask to go through it again. Your instructor's done it a million times!
  4. Practise driving outside of lessons

    The more you practise, the more comfortable you'll feel with driving. Putting time into doing the very thing that's making you anxious is hard to do but I've always found that it's the worrying about it that's hard - not the doing.

    Practising with your mum or dad, or someone else you trust to help you, means you'll get to try out different times of day, different areas and different kinds of weather, so you'll be less anxious about driving alone after passing your driving test.

    It will also make you more confident about what could come up at test time. If you've driven on lots of different types of roads, you're going to find it easier to deal with your examiner taking you on an unexpected route.

    I didn't get any private practice until I'd already failed my driving test 4 times. Funnily enough, I passed on the next go. Coincidence?
  5. Get in the right headspace before driving

    When we're scared, we tense up. Anxiety can put you in constant fight-or-flight mode, so you're on edge, you're sweating and your heart is racing. Not ideal for a nice, calm drive.

    I used to get out of the car after a driving lesson with my body ACHING from how tense I'd been. As my confidence grew, that did get better - but I could have helped myself out a lot more if I'd been proactive about it.

    Meditation is widely acknowledged as a way to relax and manage your stress levels. There are apps, like Buddhify, that can get you started and there are tonnes of guided meditation videos on YouTube.

    At the very least, make sure you're giving yourself the best chance before your driving lesson. Get enough sleep and leave lots of time to have breakfast, get ready and settle your nerves. If you're tired and in a rush, you're not in the right frame of mind for facing something that makes you anxious.

    If you need to stop during a driving lesson, just tell your instructor. They'll usually give you a few rest breaks anyway but don't be afraid to speak up if you're struggling.

You can do this

Maybe it feels like you can't. Maybe it feels like you'll never pass your driving test. Maybe you've even failed a few at this point.

Don't give up. It doesn't matter how long it takes you - you'll get there in the end and it'll all have been worth it.

Need to vent about your learning to drive anxiety?
Leave a comment below and we'll have a chat.

Thanks to the ingenie Driver Behaviour Unit for helping out with this post - they actually DO have psychology training!