Exposure therapy for driving anxiety is one of the most popular theories for fixing the issue. The problem is that it often doesn’t work and can have unexpected side effects when it does.
How do I know this? I have been a diving instructor for over 20 years and have seen driving lessons for anxiety fail time after time. I spent years finding out why that was and how to really fix the problem using hypnosis, various forms of therapy and other things.
Let me share with you why exposure therapy and fear ladders fail, the dangers involved, and how you actually fix driving anxiety. The most important points are in bold like this.
Exposure therapy for driving anxiety
The idea of exposure therapy is to put yourself in a situation that scares you so you become used to it.
There is one big problem with this: it doesn’t work!
Blindly pushing through a problem often ends up leaving you feeling worse as failure compounds your belief that you can’t do it.
Even if you think it did work there is often an unexpected consequence to exposure therapy explained further down this page.
Exposure therapy has different names. Some call it a fear ladder where you slowly climb the ladder of fear. The technical name for exposure therapy is Systematic desensitisation 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.
Let’s look at why exposure therapy fails.
This video explains how you fight anxiety by not fighting it.
Why exposure therapy for driving anxiety fails
Exposure therapy fails for several reasons but here is the main one:
Driving anxiety has nothing to do with driving!
Your driving anxiety is only a symptom of another problem.
This is what many driving instructors and therapists get wrong. If your therapist/instructor works directly on the driving issue they don’t know what they’re doing.
Exposure therapy fails because you’re just firing up the symptoms and not getting to the root cause. It’s nothing to do with driving so you can drive all you want but you’re focusing on the wrong thing.
Another hilarious point that supporters of exposure therapy miss is this:
You can’t beat driving anxiety by driving because you can’t drive!
It’s like telling someone with insomnia to just have a good night’s sleep and they’ll feel better in the morning, or telling someone with a fear of public speaking to speak at a conference about it.
But if driving anxiety isn’t about driving then what causes it?
This video looks at how you can’t beat driving anxiety by driving.
What driving anxiety really is
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 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.
I once had a client who thought about a toy they had lost as a kid. It upset them and they cried about it because they were only young at the time. Because their mind had thought about it when driving, it anchored that experience to the driving. Anchoring is attaching a feeling to an event, like how you smile when you hear a song that reminds you of something.
Fixing the problem is as simple as making your subconscious unlink the experience of driving with the feeling it’s attached to it. Once that’s done, your driving anxiety no longer exists.
By using exposure therapy you’re just making the problem worse by strengthening the trigger/anchor bond.
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 the anxiety
Now you know how anxiety is formed, let’s think about what you’re doing with exposure therapy.
You are triggering off the problem by driving and 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 your willpower, 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”.
However, there is sometimes one almighty drawback to this, even when it works: it can give you another problem instead.
The consequences of using exposure therapy
Exposure therapy has a nasty consequence that many who use it are unaware of – including therapists!
The side effect of exposure therapy is:
If you force a problem out using exposure therapy the problem can move elsewhere.
Instead of having a fear of driving you may now have a fear of flying, public speaking or something else. It could turn into insomnia or make you start smoking. You might gain weight or develop a habit of having to constantly check if light switches are on/off.
Those are all things I’ve heard of from clients that used exposure therapy.
This happens because you haven’t properly gotten to the root cause of the problem and fixed it. You’ve just bodged it up by using exposure therapy.
Probably the worst thing about this side effect is that you’ll have no idea what your new problem is until you experience it.
You may have never had a fear of flying before only to have a panic attack on a plane. That’s your old driving anxiety that you thought you’d fixed coming back and in some cases, the anxiety can then go back to being present when driving too!
It’s like how you can have a bubble in a protective screen on your phone. You can move it around but it just goes somewhere else.
Forcing a problem out is NOT a good way of dealing with it.
There is one other thing to consider when it comes to exposure therapy for driving anxiety which we’ll look at next.
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 many of them having anxiety.
It makes me cringe when I hear “experts” 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 need to get over it but they don’t realise how crippling the feeling really is.
Many people that support exposure therapy once had anxiety and think they fixed it by just pushing through. That sometimes leads to them going off and making videos about how they have found the solution and they want to share it with everyone. Some of them even start careers as therapists thinking they’ve worked it out.
No, no, no!
Everyone has a unique reason for their driving anxiety and it can be down to many different things. It isn’t always about a feeling from the past and to be able to help people you must have good knowledge of the many ways it can manifest.
This video explains how some people spread false information with good intentions.
How to overcome a fear of driving
I have written about this extensively on my page how to overcome the 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 and worked on that event, you go out driving. Then you build it up bit by bit.
How is what I do different?
Some people have worked with me and then when I ask them to drive they ask “Isn’t that just exposure therapy?”
No, it isn’t.
Exposure therapy is purely driving and pushing through the anxiety with no strategy behind it.
What I do is to work on the issue in therapy and remove the triggers and THEN you go out driving – once it’s fixed!
Yes, you may feel still uneasy at first and that’s only to be expected. If you’ve had a problem for years then it is unlikely to just vanish overnight, although that can happen.
Hypnotherapy is not magic. It’s not voodoo. It doesn’t just instantly whisk away all fear so going out and driving will still be a part of your solution.
The problem is that many people supporting exposure therapy miss out on the vital step of fixing the problem first and think that it’s fixed just by forcing themselves into driving.
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.