COVID-19 Stress & Anxiety Behind the Wheel

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A January 13, 2021 report from the Associated Press shows that COVID’s lockdowns have done little to slow the negative repercussions of the road, exacerbating accidents, injury and even death throughout the year. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), almost 28,200 people lost their lives in traffic-related crashes between January and September of 2020, which is a 4.6% increase from the year before.

It seems surprising, with much of the country sheltering in place and fewer drivers on the road. Still, the NHTSA writes, “Preliminary data tells us that during the national health emergency, fewer Americans drove, but those who did took more risks and had more fatal crashes.”

COVID-stress is likely affecting the way drivers approach the road, with a higher likelihood of nerves and anxiety when drivers get behind the wheel. With stress levels already so high, drivers seem to be more distracted and less equipped to handle the growing challenges of the road.

As we enter 2021, driver anxiety can present a significant risk for many Americans, but there are ways to seize control and overcome your anxiety when on the road.

Stressful situations behind the wheel

There are certain risks we might take when driving, like neglecting to use a turn signal before making that right-hand turn or making an illegal U-turn. These not only have an impact on how much we pay for car insurance, but they can also affect drivers in other, more personal ways.

With an increase in distracted driving and crashes in the COVID pandemic, more and more drivers are finding themselves dealing with increased feelings of stress and anxiety when it comes time to get back on the road. This is especially compounded by the traditional fears that drivers can already face.

Richard Reina, Product Training Director at CARiD.com, lists some of the hazards frequently faced by drivers on the road. “Factors that could cause anxiety span from being unfamiliar with the car or where you’re going, weather conditions, narrow areas (bridges, tunnels, etc.) distractions from passengers in the car (especially children!) and of course, factors not directly related to driving itself such as health, job, personal life, and additional life stressors that one could be preoccupied with.”

Arnold Chapman spent more than two decades on the road as a trucker before becoming the  Founder and CEO of an online magazine publisher, ELDFocus.com. He tells us, “People with a family history of anxiety disorders have a higher chance of acquiring driving anxiety. Driving anxiety is only one of the ways that the disorder manifests.”

As another example, Chapman cites a prior car accident. “One of the biggest causes of driving anxiety is when someone has been involved in a car crash. The memory of the accident can trigger adjustment disorders, phobias, PTSD, and acute stress disorder. According to studies, witnessing an accident, especially fatal ones, may even trigger anxiety-related symptoms,” he explains.

These are some of the other risks drivers are facing today.

Distracted driving

“Despite fewer motorists on the road, 2020 saw a sharp spike in motor-vehicle deaths as compared to similar time ranges from 2019,” explains Darryl Smith, Founding Partner of Florida Car Accident Lawyer Team. “Emptier roads have led to a spate of reckless behavior behind the wheel, and this can lead to great anxiety among drivers who are less than comfortable on the road to begin with. This anxiety can cause hesitation at key moments and could potentially cause accidents in and of itself.”

“The best strategy for alleviating that anxiety is to always be thinking defensively behind the wheel,” advises Smith. “Always be focused on what is going on around the car, and be on the lookout for hazards and drivers who are less conscientious behind the wheel.”

Rushed driving

We have all done it before when in a hurry — our foot gets a little heavier on the gas, pushing the limits of the posted speed limit in order to shave a few minutes off our trip. However, those extra minutes are often sabotaged by traffic, and the risks we take during rushed driving can end up having negative or disastrous consequences. By factoring in a few extra minutes to your driving plans, you not only give yourself extra peace of mind, but you also improve your chances of arriving at your destination safely.

Road rage

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released a 2020 study showing that almost 80% of all drivers have experienced road rage or aggressive driving in the last year alone. Speeding is the most aggressive form of road rage commonly seen on America’s roads. To avoid trouble, AAA encourages drivers not to engage and instead to remain calm and steady.

Backseat drivers

Backseat drivers are a form of distracted driving that can be just as deadly. To avoid incident, communicate with your passengers to make them aware of your driver anxiety and respectfully request that they help you out by allowing you to focus on the road without interference.

Keeping your passengers preoccupied is a great way to ensure that your focus stays on the road. Put on a great album or listen to a podcast or audiobook for your guests to enjoy, just as long as these aids don’t distract you, too.

Rush hour

Driving in rush hour can be a nerve-wracking experience, no matter your experience as a driver. If a rush-hour drive is unavoidable, consider calling a friend or listening to a soothing album. Some drivers find it helpful to map out an alternate commute, avoiding highways in favor of roads that are not quite as busy, and choosing routes that require fewer turns and navigation.

Road construction

Road construction can throw even seasoned drivers for a loop, closing off entire roads and barring key entrances and exits. Even if you make the same drive every day, take a few minutes to check traffic on your route and plan for any potential lane or road closures. Not only could it save you plenty of time, but it could save you possible frustration as well.

Bad weather

Inclement weather can also make driving stressful when driving rain, foggy windows, and blinding lightning turn visibility to nil.

“Flooding rains, fog, and snow can be terrifying, especially for a new driver,” explains Chapman of ELDFocus.com. “Driving long distances may also cause stress, especially if someone is the only designated driver.”

Before you leave the house:

  1. Check the weather report and try to build extra time into your drive.
  2. Check your windshield wipers and headlights regularly to make sure all are functioning properly.
  3. If you find yourself stuck on the road when the storm hits, drive slowly and remember that you can always pull over until the storm passes.

Effects of extreme anxiety while driving

Anxiety in the U.S. is far from an anomaly. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that more than a quarter of Americans today are familiar with those feelings, with 28.8% of U.S. adults experiencing an anxiety disorder in their lifetime.

“Severe anxiety is a challenge that does not get the attention it warrants,” says Rostislav Shetman, Founder of 9Kilo Moving.

No matter the cause, anxiety while driving can feel absolutely devastating, interfering with the ability to drive and making drivers hesitant to get behind the wheel again. The mental and emotional trauma of an accident, or even just the thought of an accident, can dominate rational thought and allow fear to take over.

These are some of the other challenges drivers face from time spent on the road.

Loss of precision driving skills

“If you experience extreme anxiety while driving, you may be terrified to get in a car. You may be distracted while you’re behind the wheel,” explains Chapman. “Driving during high-traffic, in a tunnel, or on small roads can trigger panic attacks.”

That can leave drivers unable to properly judge distances and unable to assess driver behavior for the other cars on the road. If you feel yourself starting to panic, take deep breaths and try to refocus your senses on the present. Calming or relaxing music can help with this process.

Impaired road awareness, reaction time, and detachment

“You may also experience physical symptoms such as blurry eyes, light sensitivity, and even excessive headaches,” says Chapman. “Symptoms such as these can affect your ability to focus and may result in an accident.”

“Compromised judgment, impaired reaction time and detachment from the feeling of actually driving a car are some of the effects of extreme anxiety on a person’s driving skills,” says Shetman. “Extreme anxiety while driving can be fatal.”

These symptoms are exacerbated by alcohol and drugs, further dulling the senses and leaving you woefully unprepared to handle the shifting demands of the road. Before you get on the road, make sure you are fully rested, sober, and able to stay focused.

Loss of judgment

“Anxiety while driving can lead to a disoriented awareness of the road, and that can lead to accidents,” explains Shetman.

If this becomes a regular occurrence, talk to your doctor to see if there are any medications or treatments that could potentially help you stay focused while driving.

Emotional outbursts

All of this stress and anxiety can build up over time. If not treated appropriately, it can bubble up and spill over in unintended ways, such as panic attacks or emotional outbursts.

It’s important to deal with your anxiety in healthy ways, whether that is through therapy, meditation or another positive form of treatment.

Tips for dealing with stress

These are tough times in the world, and the stress of everyday life has left even the calmest drivers feeling more than a little anxious. If you are already stressed out before you slip behind the wheel, you are at a disadvantage before you even begin driving.

Before you head out, consider some of the ways to alleviate the stress you feel so you can have a more positive experience on the road.

Before getting on the road

Richard Reina of CARiD.com shares a few tips with us.

Prepare ahead

A major part of a smooth experience on the road is the preparation beforehand.

“Know your route, or better, use a navigation system to plot the route to your destination,” Reina says. “What often soothes anxieties is knowing you have a potential solution in the event of an emergency or an unexpected event. If it’s a long trip, tell others where you’re headed and what your expected arrival time is.”

Keep up on vehicle maintenance

Vehicle maintenance is a preventive measure that will help you avoid the stress and anxiety of a potential breakdown.

“Be sure to regularly check your battery, tires, oil, and air filters,” advises Reina. “Ensure you’re prepared for extreme weather conditions – make sure you have your snow tires and a snow brush, and your windshield wipers have been inspected.”

Pack an emergency kit

Part of being prepared is keeping your essentials on-hand. This includes a portable air pump for refilling tires, jumper cables and flares or hazard cones.

“Always ensure you have a phone charger, proper navigation, or printed directions if you think you could lose service in an unknown area,” adds Reina, before making an additional consideration for coronavirus. “Now more than ever, it’s especially important to make sure to keep extra hand sanitizer, cleaning wipes, masks and gloves on deck.”

Maintain healthy habits

Reinforcing healthy habits on a daily basis can arm your body with the calm you need before you get behind the wheel. Part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle can include meditation, regular exercise and a well-balanced diet.

Simply walking to the mailbox or taking the dog for a walk could be enough to get the endorphins flowing, naturally reducing your stress. A few quick jumping jacks before you hop in the car could have the same effect, putting you in a more relaxed or focused state of mind.

Talk about it

“Take time to understand the cause of your driving-related anxiety,” says Chapman. “Know what is the cause of the problem and what is the perfect solution. Doing so will enable you to learn the necessary skills to reduce your symptoms.”

Journaling and therapy are excellent ways to release pent-up anxiety by allowing you to work through your stressors.

“A mental health professional knows the best solution to your driving-related anxiety,” advises Chapman. “The therapist can efficiently assess your situation and prescribe the best course of action. They can provide you with the proper knowledge and guidance.”

Don’t forget about your friends and family, who can be excellent sources of support for you.

“You may be able to deal with your anxiety on your own; however, getting help from people who care for you increases your chances,” says Chapman. “They can help you learn the necessary skills, keep you on track, and even drive for you if you can’t.”

While in the car

Once you’re in the car, there are some things you can do to maintain calm and keep anxiety at bay. Experts say that distracting the senses can wrestle power away from anxiety.

Occupy your senses

“Create safe distractions that will take your mind off from your anxiety,” advises Chapman. “Eat candy or chew a piece of gum. Drinking cold water can also help you regain your senses.”

A portable diffuser has also proven effective when drivers utilize relaxing scents like lavender, bergamot and lemongrass.

“Keep your focus on the road and all the senses that go into driving your car,” says Shetman. “Your hands on the wheel, the road ahead, the things you see and observe while driving will help take your mind off the anxious worrying and help you focus and enjoy the journey a bit more.”

Practice deep breathing

“Don’t underestimate the power of breathing,” adds Chapman. “You may experience shortness of breath if your symptoms start to occur. Choking can also happen, especially if you start to lose control of your senses.”

Instead, take control of your body with slow, deep breaths. Focus on happy thoughts and work to fill your mind with positive things and memories that will help to instill calm.

Turn on the stereo

“Make a playlist with some good, relaxing tunes!” encourages Reina. “You could also invest in an audiobook, which many find relaxing and enjoyable, and could also temporarily take your mind off of your personal thoughts.”

Pandora, Spotify and Google Podcasts have plenty of options for you to peruse in search of your perfect mellow soundtrack.

“Keep yourself occupied through the entire process,” advises Shetman. “Listen to your favorite podcast and time them such that you only consume them when you are driving. Quickly you will have something to look forward to, and you will be able to control your anxiety levels before your drive.”

Give yourself time

As frustrating as life with anxiety can be, you must be patient with yourself.

“It’s also important to dismiss extreme situations that your mind has built up by working your way through them,” adds Shetman. “Work through these unfounded fears to the point where your mind realizes that this is made up rubbish, and then you have fewer things to be anxious about.”

If you feel the familiar stirrings of anxiety, it’s okay to take some time to cool off.

“If you start feeling lightheaded, experience a migraine, or your eyes are getting blurry, stay off the road,” says Chapman. “Drive to the side, open your windows, and let the cool breeze touch you. Wait until you feel calmer and your symptoms are gone before you start driving again.”

Life with driver anxiety can be manageable, as long as you arm yourself with the right tools and tips to keep you on track.

Resources

Driver anxiety is more common than you may think. A new study from CarRentals.com, an Expedia company, shows that 44% of drivers have at least one type of driving phobia. While difficult at times, these phobias do not have to control your life.

These resources can help:

Name Type of Resource
Psychology Today Drivers can find online therapy with plenty of resources and support.
Talk Space Drivers can benefit from this online mental health forum.
Bankrate Accident Guide Review our quick guide on what to do in an accident.
MindShift This app is dedicated to coping strategies for those living with anxiety.
Sanvello Designed specifically for those with anxiety, this app concentrates on deep breathing, muscle relaxation, mindfulness, and meditation.
DARE: Anxiety and Panic Attack Relief This app was voted “Best Anxiety App” by Healthline in 2019 and 2020 with a thoughtful design meant to eliminate anxiety and worry while stopping panic attacks.