How to shift down your anxiety on the road

29 October 2021 - 09:56 By ZIMKHITA KWEZA
Driving anxiety is a phobia distinguished by notable distress at the prospect of driving, as well as fear-based efforts to avoid driving.
Driving anxiety is a phobia distinguished by notable distress at the prospect of driving, as well as fear-based efforts to avoid driving.
Image: Supplied

Driving schools teach one how to operate a motor vehicle at a fundamental level.

But one aspect the outmoded K53 syllabus fails to consider (among others) is nurturing the ideal frame of mind. Driving safely requires mindfulness, consciousness – mental health and the effect on driving behaviour is a pertinent topic in SA, where our roads are a stressful place to be.   

This week we are focusing on an insidious mental health condition that should receive more attention. That is driving anxiety. The phobia is distinguished by notable distress at the prospect of driving, as well as fear-based efforts to avoid driving.  

So, you pushed through your reservations to avoid the clutches of our erratic public transport system and find yourself loathing every kilometre behind the wheel. Now what?  

Speaking to TimesLIVE Motoring this week, occupational therapist Rozanne Groenewald talked about how driving-related anxieties can manifest as a heightened sense of hyper-vigilance and a feeling of being overwhelmed.

The psychological toll of the real and perceived problems in SA permeates race, class and gender lines. Human nature compels us to ask why or what exactly causes this condition.   

It may seem obvious that someone who has been in a car accident or witnessed one, might be the first victim of driving anxiety, or would face post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). That is not always the case, as this condition, like any other anxiety, is multifactorial.    

Pat Allen, national president of the Southern African Institute of Driving Instructors (Saidi), says that in her 43 years of being an instructor, she has quickly learned that there is intersectionality within trauma. Because of this, one must try to find the root cause. Trauma from any area of life can manifest itself into being the cause or the trigger for driving anxiety. The South African Stress and Health Study (SASH), conducted between 2002 and 2004, revealed that 75% of South Africans experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives and many were exposed to multiple traumas. And we are talking pre-Covid-19!  

Covid-19 has wreaked havoc in all spheres, our mental health included. Groenewald argues that the pandemic has heightened driving anxiety, as well as a slew of other mood and mental disorders. She categorises two types of disorders induced by Covid-19. One being Covid-19 fatigue; a person in recovery, still experiencing multiple symptoms (tiredness, shortness of breath, pain and “Covid-brain”) long after the initial contraction.   

The second type is pandemic fatigue; people feeling demotivated, tired of precautions, uncertainty and the disruption of normalcy. Both types of fatigue can actually lead to cognitive impairment and thus, affect people’s driving abilities.    

But there are approaches to coping with driving anxiety. One is medicinal – and of course, your medical practitioner would exercise prudence in this regard, in prescribing medication that calms the nerves but does not simultaneously impair your abilities. Another way of dealing with it is from the inside-out, the psychological perspective, where you try to find the underlying trauma through counselling from a professional that is equipped in driver rehabilitation and road-related PTSD issues.

Get to know your anxiety. What are some of your triggers? Can you avoid them and can you put strategies in place to cope better?

Managing anxiety both on and off the road is important. There are a few universal strategies to help with anxiety such as exercise, a good night’s sleep, a healthy diet and spending time with your loved ones, even if it’s virtually. Allen reminds us that practical driving efforts such as increased awareness of surroundings and leaving enough time to get to your destination, can make a world of difference.

Consider attending advanced driver training courses. This is a cost-effective (and fun) way to nurture confidence, develop reaction skills and gain exposure to driving defensively.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, each person must undergo their own journey. But just being mindful of the notion that driving requires far more than turning the key and checking your mirrors, is already a step in the right direction.   

Zimkhita Kweza is a producer at Ignition TV.