Exposure therapy for driving anxiety

Exposure therapy for driving anxiety is one of the most popular ways of fixing the problem but it often doesn’t work.

Let me explain why it fails so often, how it actually works and the dangers of using exposure therapy and fear ladders to overcome a fear of driving.

Exposure therapy for driving anxiety

The idea of exposure therapy is to gradually put yourself closer and closer to the situation that scares you so that you become used to it.

There is one big problem with this: it doesn’t work.

Some people are able to just blast through problems using raw power but there is often a hidden and unexpected drawback to doing this that I’ll explain further down this page. For many people, blindly pushing through a problem simply doesn’t work and often ends up leaving you feeling worse as the failure compounds your belief that you can’t do it.

Exposure therapy is known under different names. Some call it a fear ladder where you slowly climb the ladder of fear. The technical name for exposure therapy is Systematic desensitization which means you’re using a systematic approach to slowly take the sting out of a situation.

Call it what you like, it’s still the same thing and doesn’t work…or does it?

First, Let’s look at why exposure therapy fails.

Why exposure therapy for driving anxiety fails

Exposure therapy fails because it doesn’t properly address the problem.

Let me explain how driving anxiety forms in your mind and then it will make more sense. There are other ways it can happen but this is a good way of thinking about it in general.

One day when you’re out driving, you are feeling nice and relaxed and start to think of something else. This can be anything from your past and you might not even be aware that you’re thinking of it.

For example, I once had a client who thought about a toy they had lost as a kid. They were only young at the time so it upset them and they cried about it. Because their mind had thought about it when driving, it anchored that experience to the driving.

Their mind was thinking that they were going to lose their toy every time they drove! That would of course upset them so their mind formed a fear of driving to protect them from feeling that pain.

I know this might sound wacky and bizarre, but that’s because it is!

Your subconscious mind, where all problems live, does not think logically and rationally. That’s why you can’t think of the cause of your driving anxiety no matter how hard you try. You’re thinking logically but the problem lives in the land of craziness where logic has no meaning!

This is why CBT fails to fix driving anxiety. It focuses on logical thoughts which have nothing to do with it.

Why you can’t just push through anxiety

Now you know how anxiety is formed, let’s think about what you’re doing with exposure therapy.

Your mind is stopping you from driving because it doesn’t want you feeling pain. As you push harder and harder against it, your mind will increase the power of the anxiety to stop you!

You’re fighting fire with fire and that’s never going to work. Your subconscious mind is at least 10 times stronger than your conscious mind. Even with all the willpower you can muster you’ll never beat it.

Why does it work for some people then? Everyone is different and some people are just wired that way. They can force themselves through and their mind thinks “Hey, I got that wrong. This isn’t so bad after all”.

There is one almighty drawback to this though, even when it works: it can give you another problem instead.

How exposure therapy can give you other problems

Your subconscious mind only ever wants what is best for you. The reason it gives you anxiety (or any other problem) is that it is crying out for attention.

In the same way that pain is a warning something is wrong, anxiety is your mind’s way of saying “Hey! Something is wrong here, get me some help!”.

If you just push through the anxiety to force yourself to drive then your mind might think “Ok, you’re not listening to me. Fine, you can drive but now I’m going to show up in another way”.

You might then find you have trouble sleeping, start gaining weight, start smoking or anything else.

Forcing a problem out is NOT a good way of dealing with it. Even if it works it is traumatic, can leave you with another problem and of course, there is one other thing to consider when it comes to exposure therapy for driving anxiety.

Exposure therapy for driving anxiety is dangerous

As well as being a professional therapist, I have been a driving instructor for over 20 years. During this time I have taught over 1,000 people to drive with most of them having anxiety.

It makes me cringe when I hear “experts” like doctors and CBT practitioners telling people to just ignore the fear when driving and push through.

I’ve even had clients that have been told by doctors that no matter how scared they are, no matter how much they’re crying or freaking out, they have to just keep pushing and they’ll be fine.

Does that sound safe to you?

If you have a fear of driving then you’ll know how impossible it is to just push through. People that don’t have the problem, and have never been in a car with someone that has it, just don’t get it.

They think you’re being silly and just need to get over it but they don’t realise how crippling the feeling really is.

Now let’s look at what does work and how you really get over a fear of driving.

How to overcome a fear of driving

I have written about this extensively on my page how to overcome fear of driving but I’ll give you a brief summary here.

You need to go back and find what the cause of your problem is and THEN do the driving.

There isn’t always a root cause. You won’t always have some dark event that needs digging up and replacing but very often that is the case.

After you have found that event and worked on it, you then go out driving. Then you build it up bit by bit.

The problem is that many people supporting exposure therapy miss out the vital step of fixing the problem first and think that it’s fixed just by forcing yourself into driving!

Check out the page above for more details.

Contact me for help

Contact me to work with me online from anywhere in the world.

All of my sessions are done over Zoom so you can enjoy them from the comfort of home.

If you’re not ready yet or want to learn more, check out over 100 videos on driving anxiety on my YouTube channel.