Do I have a Driving Phobia or PTSD? How To Tell The difference…

Do you struggle with driving?  

There can be several reasons why people experience anxiety at the thought of driving .  Two of the most common are due to a Driving Phobia or PTSD.  But how do you tell if either of these is a problem for you?

Read on to find out top tips from Leading Clinical Psychologist Dr Keren Fisher…


do I have driving phobia
Do I have PTSD or a Phobia?

What Is A Driving Phobia?

A phobia is a feeling of fear or anxiety that makes approaching the dreaded situation very stressful and difficult. Anxiety is a normal and valuable emotion. It reminds us to keep ourselves safe, to avoid getting into danger or to cope if we are unfortunately caught up in a risky situation. It is the ancient ‘fight/flight/freeze’ reaction that allows people and animals to survive.

Phobias are a form of excessive and unnecessary anxiety at times where it might not seem rational to feel so highly anxious, or in fact anxious at all!

Having a phobia is actually quite common, usually concerning events or activities that could be dangerous, but usually aren’t. Being trapped in a lift is unpleasant, but unlikely to be life-threatening. Being in social situations may sometimes involve some disagreement with others but does not usually lead people to collapse and become humiliated (although for people experiencing Social Anxiety Disorder, which used to be called Social Phobia, it might seem that way).  Yet these are common circumstances to which people have phobic reactions.  It’s estimated that phobias are the most common type of psychological problem that people face – with some Psychologists even estimating that as many as 20% of the population having a phobia of one type of another.

So, What About Driving Phobia?

If you have a fear of driving, it could be a driving phobia.  Hallmarks of a driving phobia are fears about getting behind the wheel that prevent people leading fulfilling lives, or lead them to putting inconvenient limits on their achievements. Driving itself is not usually dangerous, but you may have been involved in an accident in the past, or have had to undertake an unfamiliar journey when life was particularly stressful for other reasons.

This may then have set up a pattern of a  behavioural response (i.e., doing something differently, such as avoiding a situation) that makes getting back into your car seem like an impossible task. The longer you avoid, the more difficult the situation becomes. Avoidance makes the situation better in the short term  because you have successfully escaped from the threat of driving, but as time goes on you may find yourself getting anxious about going out at all.

Eventually you might notice that just the thought of being in a car may give you feelings of anxiousness with a racing heart and  shortness of breath happening in your body too. Your muscles may feel like jelly and you may need to rush to the toilet. These experiences may be accompanied by unhelpful thoughts like,  ‘I’ll never manage this,  I’m so stupid.’ These reactions go round in a vicious circle, all the while maintaining your avoidance of driving.

Something needs to be done!  Your doctor can help with medications if you are also depressed, but anti-anxiety medications aren’t often recommended for treating phobias.  This is especially the case for treating a driving phobia, because many anti-anxiety medications are not only addictive, but also cause tiredness or drowsiness – which you certainly don’t want when you’re about to start driving again.

However, there is hope!  Certain types of Psychological Therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help you put all this back into ‘perspective’ and encourage you to gently practise a hierarchy of tasks starting with the simplest (sitting in a stationary car) to what often at first seems like the most frightening (driving alone on a motorway, for example).  The thoughts that make the situation appear impossible may be the most important aspect to deal with. You may also benefit from learning some relaxation and breathing techniques, which you therapist can teach you.  The idea is to associate driving with relaxation, and a sense of being adequately in control, rather than fear.

What Is PTSD as  Result Of A Car Accident?

We hear a lot about PTSD these days, often because of the reactions of some of the soldiers returning from war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan.  There are plenty of other reasons too, but the event has to be bad enough to cause a serious threat to your life or wellbeing.  This is one of the main differences between a phobia and PTSD. In this case the anxiety is associated with an actual and real threat to your life that has already happened, rather than an unrealistic or anticipated one.

PTSD stands for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the symptoms people experience need to meet certain criteria, like this:

ost – (after a life threatening event).  It will usually occur within 3 months but the onset may be delayed a long time
raumatic – it must involve actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence
tress  – intense distress is associated with reliving the event in dreams and flashbacks
isorder – it causes significant reduction in important activities, work and socialising

The event may have happened to you, or you may have witnessed it occurring to some one else. Employees of the Emergency Services might be affected because they repeatedly deal with the aftermath of very serious situations in which victims have been severely injured.

PTSD is different to treat than a phobia because often traumatic experiences can significantly change the way we think about the world and ourselves, and so therapy has to help people address these fundamental changes.  People can also often experience severe emotional disturbances such as panic attacks, shame, guilt and depression that aren’t usually emotions that typically occur for most people due to phobias.

intrusive thoughts and flashbacks
Flashbacks are common in PTSD

Another key part of experiencing PTSD can often be having ‘flashbacks’ and nightmares of the trauma itself.  Intrusive thoughts and images will often keep recurring and cause people experiencing PTSD to feel as if the event is happening over and over again. These can take the form of flashbacks, nightmares and even hallucinations.  You might have thoughts about everything being out of control or of ‘going crazy’. You might consider that your previous beliefs about your safety out and about in your world have been shattered. You might also frequently see yourself back in the situation and if anyone approaches to try and help (your partner, for instance), you might lash out, thinking you have to defend yourself.  These can be incredibly frightening experiences, and tend to occur across life, rather than just in driving related situations.

Other behavioural changes occur, like avoiding a lot of activities and events you previously enjoyed, especially if they remind you of the trauma. Even watching television might cause you to feel anxious if a programme has some traumatic content with significance for you.  If you have gone through a particularly traumatic car accident then you might find that one of these changes is a significant anxiety about being around vehicles that leads you to avoiding cars, roads and other vehicles.

Many people also report feeling ‘on edge’, and easily startled.  For example, you might generally be constantly on the alert, expecting danger round every corner and being easily startled if some one makes a loud sudden noise like slamming a door – even in situations in which there isn’t even the hint of a car around.

What Next…?

Do any of the problem areas above sound like things that happen for you?  If so, it’s important to get a professional option.  It might be that you are experiencing a driving phobia, or PTSD following a traumatic experience – or it could be something else all together.  Whilst research shows that both phobias and PTSd can improve on their own, it is often the case that professional help is needed at some stage – especially if you have been suffering from anxiety problems around vehicles or driving for some time.


If any of this applies to you, you may have avoided getting help because the problem itself is too difficult to think or talk about, but contacting a therapist is the first step to getting some relief. Do it today!