What to Do If You Have a Panic Attack While Driving

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Safely distracting yourself, engaging your senses, breathing deeply, and alleviating acute symptoms can help you handle a panic attack while driving.
Having a panic attack at any time can be scary, but especially so if you’re behind the wheel. But if it happens to you, it’s important to remain as calm as possible and engage strategies to help you through the attack. 
In this article, the car insurance comparison and broker app Jerry is breaking down what a panic attack is, why driving-related panic attacks happen, and some coping mechanisms that can help you deal with one if you’re in the car.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is usually defined as a brief period of extreme, terrifying, and overwhelming fear. Panic attacks can occur anytime, whether behind the wheel, at home, or at work.
Panic attacks usually invoke physical symptoms and can cause a person to feel detached from the world around them. Typical physical symptoms include:
  • Abrupt feeling of extreme or overwhelming fear
  • Rapid heartbeat, feeling of heart pounding
  • Feeling dizziness
  • Tingling feeling
  • Trouble breathing
  • Feeling that you may faint
  • Chills or sweating
  • Nausea
  • Pain in chest, head, or stomach
  • Feeling of losing control
  • Feeling like you’re about to die
By contrast, anxiety is typified by more emotional feelings such as worry or concerns.
Key Takeaway Panic attacks usually manifest themselves physically and symptoms may include rapid heartbeat, sweating, feeling faint, and dizziness.
There is often no clear reason or cause for a panic attack. However, some things can make panic attacks more likely, including:
  • Family history of panic attacks or panic disorder
  • Bouts of extreme stress, such as major life changes
  • Recent stress or trauma, even if not related to driving
  • Fear of losing control can make a panic attack more likely
  • Stress, fear, and panic related to driving 
  • Triggers can cause a panic attack, such certain sights, sounds, smells, or feelings that remind you of trauma
  • Phobias—when driving, can be triggered by large bodies of water, bridges, tunnels, certain intersections, insects, driving at night, etc.

Diagnosis

Panic attacks or disorders can be diagnosed by mental health professionals such as therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists.
They will ask you to describe what happened in detail. These professionals are trained to identify panic attacks, which can be caused by anxiety, depression, social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other triggers.
Keep in mind that panic disorder is treatable, and mental health and medical professionals can provide various treatments to help you manage it—so don't lose hope.
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There are simple, proven ways to help you cope with panic attacks while remaining safe behind the wheel.

Safely distract yourself

If you’re having a panic attack and it isn’t safe to pull over, there are numerous ways to safely distract yourself while maintaining control of your vehicle.
Music, podcasts, or the radio can help divert your attention from your panicked state. You’ll be able to focus on something tangible while still maintaining concentration on the road.
Relaxing music is a great way to soothe your mind as you drive. Funny or informative podcasts can shift your attention towards something you enjoy and away from what is causing your panic or stress.

Engage your senses

Engaging your senses can help you refocus yourself off the panic you’re experiencing while still safely driving.
Keep some sour or spicy candy in your car—eating one of these can act as a quick re-focusing agent to get your mind away from the panic.
A cold drink can also help refocus your thoughts away from the panic source and lower your internal temperature.

Stay cool

During a panic attack, it is common to begin sweating. Turn on your vehicle’s air conditioning or roll down the window to get cooler air in your face and bring your temperature down.
Keeping your body cool can also act as a way to refocus—away from the panic you’re experiencing and the negative thoughts in your head and onto something else, such as the refreshing feeling of cool air hitting your face.

Remember to breathe

During a panic attack, your breath can get quick and shallow. Try to be mindful of this and breathe deeply and consistently.
Do your best to keep your attention on the road while you breathe, one breath at a time. Staying in the moment—breathing and staying alert on the road—can help the panic subside.

Alleviate the symptoms, not the thoughts

You won’t be able to solve the underlying issues causing a panic attack while you’re driving—but you can dampen the symptoms you’re experiencing, even if you can’t pull over.
Do the following to help you shake panic-related symptoms:
  • Remember to breathe—deeply and consistently
  • Shake your hands out
  • Turn the air conditioning on if you’re sweaty or hot
  • On the other hand, turn the heat on if you're having chills
  • Focus on a building or a marker in the distance to safely distract yourself while you drive
Such simple techniques can relieve the physical symptoms of a panic attack so you can stay safe on the road.

If you can, keep driving safely

If you feel like you can safely do so, stay focused on driving and remaining safe. This will distract your mind from the fear and give you something to do, instead of succumbing to the panic you might be feeling.
It will be proof that you can handle a panic attack—a reassuring thought that you are capable, strong, and able to deal with it, unpleasant as it may be. That is something to be admired and be proud of.
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Treatment for panic attacks

There are lots of treatments available for panic attacks, but the one to choose will depend on what works best for you.
If panic attacks are frequent for you (when driving or at other times), it’s a good idea to see a mental health professional who can offer the support you need.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) involves looking at negative thoughts from a detached, objective viewpoint and assessing the evidence (or often, lack thereof) underlying those thoughts. This type of therapy can be helpful if you’re dealing with panic attacks.
With the help of a mental health professional, you’ll learn how to use CBT to examine and evaluate the negative thoughts in your head. You’ll learn to ask yourself some of the following questions:
  • What are the panic-inducing thoughts?
  • What evidence is there to prove them?
  • What evidence is there to disprove them?
  • What are some balanced thoughts about those negative thoughts?
CBT is a concrete- and action-focused method used to actively engage with and, hopefully, effectively manage the thoughts that underlie anxiety, depression, panic disorder, and PTSD.

Exposure

With help from a therapist, this treatment slowly and safely exposes you to the things that cause you panic, fear, or anxiety.
Exposure can help overcome your specific fears about driving—say of a certain intersection, stretch of road, or driving at night. 

Online therapy

While not for everyone, online therapy can be as effective as face-to-face therapy. Specifically, internet-based CBT therapy has become a popular and convenient way for people to seek help for mental health issues.

Medication

Under the supervision of a doctor or mental health professional, the right medication can help lessen acute panic symptoms and treat underlying issues.
Medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have proven to be safe and effective in long-term use to treat underlying issues causing panic attacks, along with therapy.

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