Sunday, March 17, 2013

5 Ways to Stop Panic Attacks While Driving

Conquering a panic attack is tough to begin with, but dealing with one while driving seems impossible. Any clever techniques one might have found in ordinary circumstances, such as doing "the plank," tossing ice cubes down one's pants, standing on one's head, and indulging in distractions like knitting and piano-playing, simply don't work while moving at 60 mph on the highway. 

As my faithful readers know, I've struggled with panic attacks for years, and the very worst of them have happened on the highway. Until recently, even the thought of driving on the highway could send me into a nervous agitation for days in advance. 

But today—suddenly, weirdly—I'm not scared. Does that mean I'm cured? Not likely, but I'm onto something. Here are my five pieces of advice for those whose panic seems to strike behind the wheel of a fast-moving vehicle.

1. Don't ask for help, ever. For a long time I would allow others to chauffeur me around, remarking that "I just didn't like to drive" and "it's easier to carpool." I let my husband drive whenever we went on a trip, which suited him just fine. When I simply had to drive, I'd beg a friend to ride shotgun to talk me through it. All this avoidance solidified a message in my mind: "You are weak. You can't drive." Every time you ask for help, that message gets stronger. Instead, try this mantra: "I don't need any stinking help, because I am a leader among men, defender of the weak. I AM the help, damn it. So gimme the keys and stay out of my way."

2. Find the worst stretch of highway you can, and drive it. Do it now, and stop hesitating. It is this very stretch of highway that keeps you in thrall to your fears. Head into NYC or Austin, TX, at rush hour, and then go back to the same stretch when cars are streaming through it at a rapid clip. Take it slow and then take it fast. Drive until it becomes boring. Drive it again. Nothing else will ever seem as bad, and your fear of future drives will start to collapse. 

3. If an attack comes on, welcome it. The worst thing you can do is to be afraid when a panic attack strikes. Your fear will spawn further fears and fears of those fears until your fear is a layered as a teetering, malevolent sandwich. Understand that you are controlling the panic, not something else. Yours is the hand that turns the screw. So crank it up! Try to bring on the panic as fast and fierce as you possibly can. Pretend you are an actor in a play experiencing a panic attack. You want to win an Oscar for this performance. Really chew the scenery! Start screaming and cursing if you must, and use words like "doo doo" and "poo poo." Your kids will forgive you and will be amused. By riding into the eye of the panic attack and whooping as you beat your steed, you are owning it.

4. Stop taking bears on as passengers. I'm just saying, it's a stupid idea to ride around with assholes or bears. They will make you nervous and will probably gnaw on your arms while you drive. Your own personal "bear" might be that asinine baggage you're dragging around—you know, that mantra of yours that goes: "I am a weakling and a fool, and will always be such. I deserve to be eaten by a large animal." Ditch that, sister. Toss that bear out at the next rest stop.

5. If all else fails, stop the car and do jumping jacks. Pull over to a safe spot at the side of the road and do jumping jacks until the attack passes. You will look like an outright fool and will probably begin laughing at yourself, at which point you can get back in your car and drive. If you don't like jumping jacks, try the Charleston, the Macarena, or the horsie dance from Gangnam Style. I can almost guarantee that a panic attack will wither in the face of your extreme public shame at dancing to "hey, sexy lady"on the side of the road. N.B. Your kids may not forgive you if you need to use this technique. 

What about you? Do you have any tips for managing panic attacks while behind the wheel or elsewhere?


Anonymous said...

Dumb question: Can you describe what a panic attack feels like?

Catherine Stine said...

I used to have a fair amount of anxiety when I started to drive (years ago at this point). The more experience behind the wheel, the less I had. Accumulated experience (immersion) was the best cure. I do subscribe to the defensive driving philosophy. Watch out for OTHER drivers because they suck much worse than you do. So never tailgate, and don't go anywhere near crazy pants who are weaving in and out of traffic at 80 mph.

Jaye Robin Brown said...

I had a bad horse back riding accident 2 years ago. Still dealing with panic attacks when I ride. This is the year I need to get over it. so YES to your #1

Angela V. Cook said...

You go, Pony! Show those panic attacks who's boss! :)

I don't mind driving on the highway--unless there's a lot of traffic/construction. THEN, I tend to freak out. I think it's because in my early twenties, I rear-ended two cars within months of each other, and so I tend to get really anxious in stop-and-go traffic. Needless to say #2 (heh, heh--I said "number two") probably wouldn't work out too well for me :)

But I'm SO happy you've found a way to deal with your panic attacks :)

Anonymous said...

You are the greatest person in the entire world, a leader among men, and THE HELP!! Ye haz made me a believer. Learn to interpret your fear as excitement. "Who Dares, Wins!" as they say in the British SAS. Fortune Favors the Brave! US Navy SEALs in Vietnam taught themselves to attack INTO an ambush, instead of falling to the ground moaning. This scared the crap out of the ambushers, and saved lives. The only way past trouble is through it, and you are my hero! Cheers! Sam

Jenny Phresh said...

Anonymous One, I certainly can! It's worthy of a whole blog entry so stay tuned.

Marewolf said...

I panic any time I have to drive in California :(

Toll booths REALLY freak me out!

I think the best thing to do to prevent panic attacks is to be as prepared as possible. The fear comes from the unknown. If you know what to expect, it's not so bad. So my friends and coworkers think I'm a little weird for asking them inane and detailed questions about toll booths, but I feel better when I know what to expect :)

LisaAnn said...

The thought of you doing the horsie dance on the side of the road is all I need to get me through the rest of my day, my friend. :)

In all seriousness, though, I definitely suffered some PTSD-style panic attacks for awhile after surviving a nasty car accident a few years ago. Snow and / or rain did me in, and mountain roads were nearly impossible to face. But I agree with you that the best advice I ever got was to remind myself that I am STRONG, goddammit, and that little voice in my head can just shut the f**k up for a little while, because I have something to DO here.

I also always reminded myself that I was ALLOWED to be scared, and that this wasn't a sign of weakness. It was just a natural part of my healing, and it was OKAY to be scared as long as I didn't let that fear define me.

Good on ya, sister, for tackling your fears, too.

Precy Larkins said...

Okay, so Pony dear, I can totally relate to driving anxieties. When I first learned to drive, I was just married, and had moved to a different state. I didn't have any driving experiences prior to the marriage because I left my hometown/country before I was old enough to get a license. So picture this: New city/state, newly married, new car, hubs in passenger seat, me quaking in the driver's seat with my learner's permit stowed in the glove compartment. Oh, and yeah, I was barely pregnant so highly emotional. Yeahhhh...good times, good times (not!). Failed my first test (too nervous). Had to put off driving for a couple of years (I was traumatized). By the time I was ready to try again, I was a lot more confident and I passed an got my license.

I still hesitate to drive if it's someplace I'm not familiar with, but I drive all the time now (because someone's got to take the kids to school, karate, dance, appointments, etc., right?)

:) Lurves you, Pony girl!

Greg Weber said...

You had me at "teetering, malevolent sandwich." Seriously though, the advice to learn to face rather than run from your fears is spot on. Driving anxiety can't be cured by avoiding it, although there are techniques to make it easier to face. Great post. Funny too...

Anxiety Girl said...

Love this post so much! I will take the image of dancing on the side of the road with me the next time I do exposure work on the highway! How's driving been going lately?