Most of us have something we are scared of, such as spiders, heights or flying. Our hearts might race, our cheeks flush and our knees knock together, but generally, we manage to get things under control and in proportion. For some, however, their fears dominate and can severely restrict their lives.
What causes a motorway phobia?
For Amanda Loiselle, a civil servant and part-time milliner, her fear of driving on motorways has become a full-blown phobia and the sheer sight of a motorway sign can leave her feeling queasy. Like many who suffer from phobias, the causes can be traced back to an earlier traumatic experience.
“I have suffered from motorway and car-related phobias for roughly two and a half years, but it stems back as far as my teenage years. I lost my best friend in a car accident on my 16th birthday and I think it was the beginning of my driving phobia,” says Amanda.
“As a result, I delayed learning to drive but when I finally got the courage to learn to drive, in my early forties, I passed the first time and was very proud of myself. I actually do love to drive and I am good at it, but these fears often impair me.”
However, following an illness, Amanda was housebound for four months and found it difficult to adjust back to driving.
“When it was time to return to work I was terrified to get back into my car and would feel sick just at the thought of it, so I avoided all situations that required me to drive.
“With winter now upon us, my fear of driving in the dark is well and truly in place. It is dark when I leave for work and again when I come home. I purposely leave my house at least an hour and a half early, for a 25-minute journey. I do this because the roads are quieter and I feel less anxiety if there is less traffic.
“I also drive with my window open. I know it sounds strange but being able to hear the road and the traffic clearer and feel the fresh air blowing in, somehow gives me a better sense of security when I am driving. No matter what the weather, I always drive with my window open.
“People who don’t suffer from phobias find it hard to understand. I get comments like, ‘it’s just up the motorway’ or ‘it’s only a short drive through the next town’. For me, it may as well be a mission to the moon.”
Similarly, Kenny Campbell, a media trainer and former journalist, says his phobia results from a car accident.
“I had a blow-out and my old Mitsubishi 4×4 spun around and barrel-rolled backward through a hedge into a field. I was extremely fortunate to climb out of the wreck with nothing more than a bruised knuckle, and thought that, aside from dealing with an insurance claim, that was that,” he reveals.
Despite showing no signs of mental or physical damage from the crash, a few weeks later his first panic attack was triggered.
“The first panic attack came out of nowhere, as I was overtaking a truck on the M4 and, as I desperately tried to get from the middle lane to the hard shoulder, I was incredibly confused, and terrified that I was going to kill my wife, myself and quite possibly other motorists,” recalls Kenny.
“For several months, I couldn’t use motorways. As I travel for my work, that was a serious issue. Over time I have learned to l love the bus, wrestle with the rail network and take the roads slightly less travelled.”
Then there are others, like Gary Kirby, an occasional blogger and video creator from Belfast whose anxiety developed into a full-blown phobia over time and crept up slowly.
“I was previously a sales manager and drove on motorways across the country. The very thought of doing that now fills me with dread,” says Gary.
“I have always suffered from anxiety but when this started to manifest itself in panic attacks on motorways, it was nightmarish. I thought I was a danger not only to myself but other drivers. It became a vicious circle. I’ve basically given up now – at least in the case of driving on a motorway – but I have taught myself to be relatively calm as a passenger.”
Ironically, the part of driving that people fear the most turns out to be the safest part. RSA research has consistently shown that, despite the high-speed travel, motorways are considerably safer than other roads. In 2017 and 2018 respectively, five and 10 people died on motorways – this compares to 55 and 50 on roads where the speed limit was 80kmh.
Just how common are motorway phobias?
Stephanie Regan, a clinical psychotherapist based in Dublin, regularly treats people with such phobias and has noticed an increase in her own practice.
“Often they are as a result of a life-threatening or near-miss situation on the motorway,” says Stephanie “While the person may not be physically injured, they are psychologically wounded by what could have happened to them, that they could have died, leaving their children or loved one,” she says.
“These are the thoughts that replay in the mind of the driver every time they think about driving in that motorway or any motorway again. These thoughts are what drives anxiety and cause the driver toward avoidance.”
She explains that the causes can stem from a number of issues and can be part of a generalised anxiety disorder or it can relate to existing high levels of stress in the system.
Can the fear of driving on a motorway be conquered?
“The first step is to acknowledge the issue and take steps to address it,” says Stephanie. “Try measured, small-step exposure. Do small pieces of the motorway, just one exit to the next. Learn to actively relax your body and state positive statements to yourself about the driving. If you find this too difficult alone, be accompanied and or book a driving lesson for the motorway.
“If you are someone who purposely avoids motorways, remember that you are not alone,” Stephanie advises. “But often avoidance behaviours are shown to fuel the anxiety or phobia, so dealing with the problem as early as possible is what really raises the odds of success.”
1st February 2019