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Panic Attacks While Driving? 3 Quick Tools to Cope

By Dr. Nicole Cain ND, MA

Do you deal with panic attacks driving? Today, we’re going to talk about why panic attacks may happen while driving and what to do about it

If you’ve ever experienced this, you know that panic attacks can be absolutely debilitating. You feel like you can’t breathe, you feel dizzy, you feel tingling, your heart is pounding, you may even feel like you’re getting chills or you’re sweating or you might even feel like you’re gonna lose control. If this is happening, you need to be able to do something about it that works quickly and effectively so that you can stay safe and keep others around you safe. 

Why Do Panic Attacks Happen While Driving. 

  1. Family History of Panic Attacks: or you’ve had a personal history of a panic attack. And they just decide to come out at the most inopportune times. 
  2. Past Trauma: If something scary happened in the past, the brain may have made an associative cue that driving is something that’s scary or unexpected. 
  3. Scary Experience While in the Car: a scary thing happened while in the car as a passenger or as a driver, and this could be something that may have been during childhood, and the brain still remembers that and it’s swimming around in the unconscious and decides to come up when least expected.
  4. Stress or Major Life Change: or if you’ve gone through a recent trauma, even if it has nothing to do with driving. 

 

If one has happened before is that oftentimes we worried that it’s going to happen again. Our nervous system starts to respond as though it may happen again. The amygdala is turned up and then those feelings of worry or hypervigilance are amplified. The prefrontal cortex gets turned down, we have less mental breaks. We may have more intrusive thoughts, more worries, more analysis, paralysis. Our brain stem, that reptilian brain will jump on board and start to produce these feelings of stress, which is untethered can amplify into panic and anxiety. 

The most important thing to know about panic attacks is that the anxiety can’t hurt you. Anxiety isn’t harmful, it won’t hurt your brain, it won’t hurt your body. Anxiety in it of itself isn’t harmful. But it can feel incredibly dangerous. And it can feel incredibly real. Having tools to get that anxiety under control is going to be life-changing, and game-changing. 

What to Do

I talked a lot in my work with my anxiety warriors about forcefield strategies. The force field is something that surrounds you that protects you that keeps you safe. Forcefield strategies are things that you can start employing before the panic attack even hits. Make sure that you’re paying attention to where you are on the red, the yellow and the green and start to employ these forcefield strategies based on how you’re feeling emotionally before actually getting in the car. When you get in the car, let’s say you’re driving down the highway and panic strikes, it comes out of nowhere, you go from green to yellow in an instant, or yellow into red in an instant, you need support right away. 

3 Quick Tools to Cope with Panic While Driving

  1. The first thing is that I want you to do is distraction. Look at the car in front of you, I want you to name the color of the car and want you to notice details. If there’s a cool bumper sticker on the car or something on the license plate, or something about the year of the car or the logo, does it have a paint chip out of it, whatever you can notice, pay attention to the details in the car in front of you. You want to make sure that you’re staying in the here and then now. One of the things that anxiety sometimes can cause us to do is something called dissociate, where we feel like we want to just leave our body and being here and now is going to be really important in helping number one keep you safe, keep other people safe and help the anxiety pass more quickly. Use safe distractions. Pay attention to what’s around you. If you have somebody in the car with you ask them to ask you very easy to answer questions like “What color is your shirt?” “What color is the car?” “What day of the week is it?” “What road are we on?” Make sure that you’re using very concrete examples to bring you back into your body. 
  1. The second thing is if you have a panic pack, use your panic pack. That’s what they’re here for. I have a panic pack, we have a whole video and a guided imagery that’s all free for you to use to create your own panic pack. In my panic pack, there are tools that you can use while driving. 
    • One is Kava Kava, and so if you’re getting really anxious and you’re driving you can use Kava Kava, it keeps the brain sharp, it doesn’t sedate you or slow you down, but it slows down that physical and emotional response to anxiety. 
    • There’s also freezer packs that you can get on Amazon, temperature is super important when it comes to getting us out of that fight flight freeze state. If you can get that chemical pack, break it open or have your passenger ideally break this open and then place that under your eyes if you can, on your neck, or even in the back of your neck. If you don’t have access to a freezer packed and change the temperature in your car, turn the air conditioner up high roll down the windows, turn the heater on, whatever changes the temperature to get you back in your body will be really helpful. 
    • Another thing is breathing. Sometimes when we get really anxious, we hyperventilate, and then we breathe out our CO2 or carbon dioxide and that changes the pH in the body and the brain, predisposing it for greater amounts of anxiety. The University of Iowa published some articles talking about this process and how we can change it with the breath. In my panic pack, I have a straw that I cut about in half. And then you can place that straw in your mouth and do four-count breathing
  1. If the anxiety is intense enough where you need to get off of the highway while you’re breathing and while you’re in the moment, try to safely merge over and then get off of the nearest exit and then pull into a safe place where you can stop and collect yourself.

 

We’ve talked about safe distractions, using something that can be quick and effective but not make you a hazard driving. Kava Kava is my go to. We talked about breath, we talked about cooling off or warming up depending on what’s better for you. And then we talked about making sure that you’re not breathing out all of your CO2 by slowing down the breath. 

Make sure that you focus on your true reframing narrative, it’s really important to tell yourself again and again like, “Okay, my body is really revved right now, my heart is beating more quickly, my brain and my body are acting like there’s a bear chasing us. I’m perfectly safe. I’ve driven many times. And right now my body is feeling anxious, and it will pass and anxiety can’t hurt me. And I can do this.” Start to change the narrative that you’re giving to your brain and your body as is producing the feelings of anxiety. 

Anxiety will pass. Panic attacks can be horribly uncomfortable. They can be devastating and scary, but they will pass and you can conquer panic attacks. If you need to pull off, make sure that you do it safely. If you can work through this and keep driving, then that is going to be the most important thing to help you conquer this once and for all. Try to not avoid, but if you tend to get anxiety driving, then when you’re practicing and preparing and doing your forcefield strategies, try to make smaller trips and bring somebody with you that can remind you of all the things you need to do. 

One thing that might help when you’re in that fight flight freeze and it’s hard to remember all of the things that we need to do, is try to include in your panic pack a really quick little written reminder of what to do: 

Share this video and blog with your loved ones who may be in the car with you. 

You can get through this, you can feel better, panic attacks aren’t harmful. They’re just really miserable. But you can get better, you can get your life back and you can get to the bottom of the panic attacks. 

Check out the free webinar for quickly stopping stress and overwhelm, it’s a 3-Minute Hack to access a calm version of yourself without shoving down how you feel or making others pay a high price for your stress.Get a proven 3 step process from the ACT Method that puts you back in control when emotions are elevated and difficult to manage. Watch it now!

This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Whenever considering changing your protocol whether it includes a change of medications, supplements, diet or lifestyle, always speak with your primary care physician first. Dr. Nicole Cain consults with clients locally and internationally. Dr. Nicole Cain ND MA has helped countless people take back control of their lives, and she can help you. To set up a complimentary consultation, call our office or visit https://drnicolecain.com/getting-started to schedule online.
Dr. Nicole Cain is an advocate for empowering people around the world to help themselves via her educational video e-courses, books, and exclusive free Facebook group. You can receive the tools you need to find the root cause of your symptoms and feel healthy again.