I’ve been battling with a motorway driving phobia for around 6 years now. Going from spending a lot of time in a car (much of which was on motorways in the mid 00’s) to triggering a motorway phobia was unexpected and pretty bizarre. I can pinpoint when it started, driving at night, stressed due to tension with an ex, in France. I’d forgotten to turn the lights on, ex was drunk and unable to read a map, we were really late into the country and far from being able to reach our campsite for the night. Massive tension, row, and sleeping in a French layby at the side of the motorway (something I’ve never done before) all in all this seemed to embed trauma into my brain and by the end of the holiday I was utterly terrified of driving on motorways.
I’ve been gradually trying to understand how I could have created the phobia – going from being totally at peace on a motorway to one where my heart-rate shot up, hands gripped the steering wheel, focus became hugely tunnel vision – so I could unlearn the fear response and really shift my mindset & physical reaction to driving on a motorway. I didn’t get anywhere for a long time (nor did I really try that hard) until the last couple of years. The idea of not being able to drive to the mountains and always having to rely on Jenny seemed unfair and limiting. I also knew that with everything I was learning and discovering, it felt empty if I didn’t try to apply to my own experience. The first big breakthrough came with reading Joe Dispenza’s book You are the Placebo. This was wonderful at unpicking the physical element of the phobia. The idea of being stuck in the past when faced with the present. My body just tripping into that fearful time in France as soon as I got onto a motorway, this happening before any conscience cognitive process could kick in. My brain doing what it thought was helpful in keeping me safe, avoiding repeating an experience where I felt under huge stress and in danger. It was clear (as he makes clear) that I needed to displace this very powerful memory with a more recent, positive, truer reflection of motorway driving. The challenge with this is getting past that deeply embedded sense of fear. Joe Dispenza uses meditation to access the subconscious brain to implant positive thoughts that then take precedence.
The next step forward was having to drive Jenny to her parents, to visit her very sick mum. The sense of purpose and importance of doing something for somebody else proved to be a more powerful motivating force than my own self generated fear. Did the sense of purpose crowd out the fear, the history – who knows? Foolishly I thought I was completely cured / over the phobia. This wasn’t the case (as proved a couple of weeks later, when driving back from a walk I was once again struck by sheer terror on the road) but I had begun to challenge the fear response I had with a more recent calm version of what driving should be like.
Alongside this I begun to use coherent breathing before getting on the road to help calm my body – if the breath is calm, the body felt safe, balancing the autonomic nervous system, calming the vagal nerve and letting the parasympathetic help manage the sympathetic. This sense of control definitely helped. This week I managed 2 journeys, both with relative success (not completely stress free, but far, far better). I looked at the journey, not too far in advance (to build up fear) but a couple of days to understand how long the motorway stretch was. I prepped my breathing before getting on the motorway – 6/6 – to calm my body and feel relaxed. On the motorway I relaxed my grip on the wheel, slowly let my gaze move away from the car in front (the sense of space something that I found really worrying) reminded myself that I was safe and driving well. I stopped looking at the speedometer and thought that this was unnecessary as I was driving sensibly and at a controllable speed. On the occasions I could feel my heart rate rise I reminded myself to reduce my gaze, focus on my breath, think of how safe I was and that good driving was like this. When I had to overtake I did slowly, with space and at ease. Once when I felt nervous in the middle lane (having overtaken and waiting to move up) I felt uncomfortable and pulled back into the inner lane. All in all this helped me feel far calmer and kept the fear / stress response at arms length. I stopped thinking I was completely cured, more that I had found a way to manage my fear and over time this would be internalised and a new paradigm created.
This definitely fits into my urge to face fear, embrace it and try to understand how to get past what makes us frightened. Breathwork, patience, self-compassion, determination and curiosity all key to achieving this.