Fear of Driving Meets Driving School: Finally, Genuine Progress

When the instructor pulled into my driveway I had a sinking feeling. How embarrassing to be seen in a car emblazoned with STUDENT DRIVER. And how could this guy help me anyway, after two decades of crippling fear of driving on a highway?  I know how to drive. I know how to drive safely on a highway, in fact. What made me concede to my therapist’s suggestion that a driving lesson could help with my my (mostly) irrational and seemingly intractable fear?

But there he was in my driveway, bumper sticker and all, and I was committed to at least trying for 45 minutes.

In what must have been a fit of optimism, I’d signed up for the driving lesson nearly a month before. Maybe I felt like I was taking a step just by signing up. Maybe it seemed so far away I didn’t have to worry the reality of driving on a highway.

The night before the lesson a reminder popped up on my phone. “Oh, God,” I thought. “I’m really going to have to go through with this. It’s too late to back out and I’m going to have to drive on a highway. What was I thinking in August?”

I went swimming that morning to calm myself down, hoping the exercise, the water, and my meditation techniques might help.

In the water I asked myself a new question I’ve felt drawn to in dealing with difficult emotions: Where in my body do I feel this anxiety? It’s a new approach for me. It doesn’t deal with the content—what I’m anxious about—but simply the physical manifestation of the anxiety.

Where did the idea come from? Maybe a variation of a meditation technique. I was exhausted with even the thought of protocols that asked me to imagine or think about driving. I didn’t want to use EMDR to try to tap the negative emotions out of me while placing myself back in the scariest moment of my life: the first time I had a panic attack driving. To be clear, there’s plenty of good evidence for the effectiveness of EMDR. For whatever reason, however, it hadn’t seemed to have been working for me. My gut was saying, don’t go into the content of the fear today. Leave that alone. Don’t even spend energy to try to create confidence by reminding myself how competent a driver I am on roads I drive every day, which are in truth, more dangerous than highways.

Instead, while I was swimming, I traced the physical fear sensation to my throat. Like a pointy rock in there. First I just kept swimming while allowing my awareness to rest on that sensation. I didn’t try to change it. I truly didn’t fret about it. I just said to myself, isn’t this interesting that this is where I should feel the fear. Here it is. And it feels hard and jagged. I swam a few laps in that mind-space, kind of mentally feeling around with curiosity—where exactly was the pain (because it was actually painful) located and what exact shape had that pain taken.

I didn’t know what to do with this awareness. Was it enough to simply notice? I was practicing the meditation technique of “staying with sensation,” allowing awareness without judgment. The idea is that by staying aware of the unpleasant sensation without fear or attempt to fix it, the sensation will naturally lose some of its power to cause distress. To view it from the opposite side, pain has power when it we fearfully avoid it or when we try to effort it away or we dwell on the distress we feel about that pain. Sometimes I have found that this kind of nonjudgmental awareness does in fact make me feel less bothered by a particular pain. Sometimes (if I’m lucky) the pain will dissipate in part or even wholly.

In this case, the rock in my throat stayed put. So I decided to try my skills at visualization. I have noticed lately that imagery is very powerful to my mental and physical state. Embarking on a completely uncharted journey, I returned my mind to the sensation. It’s not a rock, I told myself, it’s a bunch of cells that are all knotted up together and blocking the smooth flow of fluid and energy. I imagined a blob of knitted cell strands trying to save me from danger, but really getting in the way of feeling better. I imagined untying them strand by strand. Weirdly, this gave me almost a choking sensation, like there were actual strands in my throat. That might sound awful, especially while swimming, but instead, in my curious frame of mind, I thought, “Isn’t that interesting.” I also thought about my Craniosacral Therapy training; what might be considered progress often comes as a change in flow or sensation. So I’d effected change, which seemed like progress. I visualized the cells in these strands loosening their bonds and yielding a bit of space. Eventually, the sensation lessened a bit and satisfied I’d done my best, I left the whole exercise alone.

I have no way of knowing if my swimming meditation and/or the particular technique I used helped at all. All I know is that when I got into the car with the instructor, I didn’t panic. Even getting on the highway was scary, but not terrifying. I give much of the credit to the instructor who talked about the highway as a bunch of fish all swimming in the same direction: some faster, some slower, some bigger, some smaller, but no danger of anyone coming from the opposite direction. The image of the highway of having this flow was very calming.

Instead of being on the edge of panic, I felt the anxiety ebb ever so slightly throughout the trip north and return trip south as the instructor reminded me in his utterly calm voice of how to safely change lanes and make decisions about speeding up or slowing down. He also kept up a conversation (I can’t even remember about what) the whole time which kept my mind off the anxiety too. By the time we were done, for the first time in two decades I felt hopeful about driving without undo fear on the highway. I felt excited rather than fearful to practice more with this instructor.

When I returned home, I called the driving school immediately to schedule my next lesson before I had a chance to either procrastinate or lose my nerve. And this is the part I can (and will) take credit for: deciding I was ready to take on the challenge and making concrete plans (and follow through) to practice.

If I can drive on the highway on my own, I can drive south to the train station and get anywhere I want to go. I could drive north towards skiing once more. I could meet up with hiking groups. I could drive east or west to paddle once again with groups I used to be a part of. Driving might just be the key to finally breaking the vicious anxiety depression cycle. I have the possibility of creating a “virtuous cycle:” where positive begets positive. If I can go where I want to go on my own, I gain self confidence and independence. It also opens opportunities for me return to various outdoor recreation which I miss so much and are so good for my mental health; to meet up with old friends, making me feel less isolated; to have the freedom to go where I want, when I want without having to ask someone to take me; to be able to go places and see people rather than feeling stuck within a 15 mile radius of home.

I am actually (unexpectedly) looking forward to next lesson–my “systematic desensitization” to highway driving. Independence, here I come!

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