Learning To Drive – Tips for the Socially Anxious

I passed my driving test last week. Finally!

After over a year and a half’s worth of lessons and three tests, I am now legit able to drive a car with no one else’s feet hovering over the second set of pedals! This is a massive deal for me.  It’s proven to me that while my anxiety will never completely go away, I have succeeded in being able to harness it to winning effect!  I can put my anxiety to one side when it matters the most.

For a long time, I was convinced that I’d never feel confident enough to drive in a lesson, let alone pass the test!  When I finally decided to face my fear and book some driving lessons I was still only at the very beginning of understanding my anxiety.  Those two years before booking had been filled with frequent and immobilizing panic attacks, life-changing shocks and surprises within my family and my circumstances and, ultimately, an all-time low in my self-esteem.  I was booking my lessons and already feeling like a failure.

My truly wonderful instructor, Krista of Magnet Driving School, probably didn’t anticipate how much of a challenge this was going to be when she took me on but she never gave up on me!  She was positive, attentive, intuitive and constructive the whole way and I never once felt as though my anxiety was ridiculous or something to “just get over”.  In spending time with Krista, the message was calm and clear: everyone has their deal, we just have to figure our own out as best as we can and make it work!

And we did it! We picked up tips, tricks and extremely valuable insight which got me to that finish line and it’s a combined toolkit that I’ve been able to take away and apply to other areas of my life!  On top of learning how to drive, these lessons acted as an intense and proactive form of behavioural therapy and anxiety management course.

Before I get into the toolkit, which includes some in-lesson guidance, test run-up ideas, some out-of-lesson anxiety management advice and a couple of Holy Grail products, I’m going to share a bit about my own anxiety with you.  No two people’s anxiety is the exactly the same in its triggers or its management, but seeing that someone else has experienced something similar, if not the same, and understands it, can make all the difference in how you feel about your lessons, the tests and, most importantly, yourself.

My history with social anxiety.

I have and always have had social anxiety problems. I was that quiet girl at school who was often alone because being around others usually became too complicated and terrifying to handle with all of the unspoken and contradictory codes of conduct that seemed to be flying about the place. I am pretty much the same as an adult.  While I have friends and family who I love dearly, and a boyfriend who I cannot get enough of, I still prefer my own company.  It’s never their fault that I feel this way but I like not having to worry about feeling as though I’m under a constant level of scrutiny. 

In a classroom, I’m usually pretty happy and comfortable to take part and be vocal because the focus of scrutiny isn’t solely on me and doesn’t feel so personal, but being taught something one-on-one is usually my worst nightmare!  My anxious mind is usually convinced that one-on-one tuition or guidance is where I’m going to reveal myself to my teacher as a failure and an imposter who is trying to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes in convincing them that she’s a capable human being.  This is all irrational thinking, I know, but that is anxiety for you; irrational but understandable.

Booking my first block of lessons was terrifying!

I contacted my instructor, Krista, after having read that she was very good at handling students with learning difficulties, such as dyslexia.  I do not have any learning difficulties, but there is a commonality in anxiety triggers among those with anxiety disorders and learning difficulties.  I wholeheartedly admire anyone who struggles with learning difficulties on top of severe anxiety and still gets themselves behind that wheel, even if only for one taster lesson!

I let Krista know from the get-go that I had issues with anxiety, but something that I didn’t prepare myself for was that I didn’t really understand how my own anxiety physically manifested or what it was specifically that could trigger it.  So, in those moments in the car when my anxiety started to rise I would be struggling to communicate anything and Krista would be trying to encourage me to talk through what was happening; but I just couldn’t! The words could not leave my chest.  I felt mute!

Finding a way forward.

I decided that if I wanted to get my licence, I needed to confront my anxiety and explain it as best as I could to Krista, even if I wasn’t fully aware of what caused it or how it worked at the time.  I needed to let her in so she could possibly see where my head was at when these things happened.  It was something that I had to learn how to identify and handle and it was my responsibility to be as upfront with her as possible before we went any further.  So, around about my tenth lesson, I sent her an email explaining that if I’m struggling to speak, its because I am in a moment of anxiety that I’m struggling to get out of.  It’s not that I don’t want to talk, it’s that the words cannot come out.  That is about as much as I understood of my anxiety and I couldn’t explain it much more at that point.

Krista was fantastic!  Throughout my continuing lessons, we’d chat here and there, in moments of calm, about how things felt, what was instinctively was going through my mind and the things that I was seeing that was setting off my internal warning lights, etc. She learned to read my anxiety better than anybody ever has and, given some time, and a few more lessons, we began to see bit-by-bit those moments on the road that were triggering the escalation of my anxiety.  I started to pay more attention, as did Krista, to what my body physically did when I was in the grips of anxiety.

I was also looking at myself in a way that I never had before.  The aim wasn’t to self-criticise but to try and figure out if there was a pattern behind the escalation, a sequence to my behaviour during and a way of bringing my anxiety back down again without suffering an adrenaline crash.  Instead of thinking that I was broken, I began to see what could be worked on and worked with, and I found some sure-fire reliables that kept me calm and confident that I could do this, and do this well!

My Toolkit:

I’m going to break this down toolkit into the categories THINK and USE,  so that the way in which to approach managing your own anxiety feels much less complicated.  Anxiety can be complicated enough, amirite? It’s highly possible that not all of these will work for you as everyone is different, but seeing things in terms of Think and Use can really help you in potentially coming up with your own toolkit.  Devising your own toolkit will help shift the way that you think of your own anxiety, from something to “fix” into something to instead “work with”.  Try and think of your anxiety as a lifelong relationship: don’t allow it to control your life, but don’t shut it out either.  Be attentive, carefully consider what it needs and be prepared to make some compromises.

THINK

#1 – Remind yourself that it’s not a requirement to pass your driving test the first time to be considered a good driver.  I put so much pressure on myself to pass the first time and I’m pretty sure it was that unwarranted pressure that caused my anxiety to soar on those first two tests.  You may not hear of it very often but more people “fail” at least one test than they care to admit (until you don’t pass twice like I did that is, in which case they suddenly feel “free” enough to spill the beans).  Even the best of drivers struggle with test day nerves and need a couple of cracks at it to pass!

#2 – Consider any tests that you do not pass as simply being rather expensive mock tests! My first examiner said this to me as my adrenaline-charged tears came pouring out when I found out that I hadn’t passed.  The professionals (the good ones at least) never use the words “fail”, “failed” or “failure”.  If they don’t use those words to refer to not having passed, why should you?  Nor should you have to hear those words from anyone else in your life.  Don’t be afraid to correct people if they do use the word “fail” in reference to you not having passed on that occasion.

#3 – Remember that the best drivers in your life aren’t always the best drivers out there, they’re just more comfortable and confident, so there’s no need to be intimidated by their “expertise”.  They’ll still try to cut corners and pull fast-ones in a way that would make your instructor sweat if you tried it!

#4 – Remind yourself that if you hearing other vehicles beeping their horns, they’re not necessarily beeping at you! Most of the time they’re simply saying hi to a mate they’ve spotted.  With anxiety, it’s easy to assume that all criticism is aimed your way.  It’s not!

USE

#1 –  Nelsons Bach Rescue Remedy Pastilles

My instructor recommended these herbal anxiety-relief pastilles to me very early on to help keep me calm.  They’re alcohol-free and non-drowsy so perfectly safe to use when driving and you can take a couple at a time if needed.  I would take one an hour before the lesson and one as I headed out the door to the car.  They’re just that little touch of extra support when you feel that your anxiety might be tested.  You could argue that it’s simply a placebo effect that’s keeping you calm but, even if that is the case, they’re safe and non-addictive so why not let that placebo magic do its thing?  Plus, they taste like midget gem sweets. Yum!

Buy here:  Boots, Holland & Barrett

#2 – Decent footwear, i.e. trainers

When your lessons start, figure out which good pair of shoes (preferably trainers) you’ll be using and stick with them! Consistently wearing suitable footwear will narrow down those little details that might cause anxiety in a car.  I had a couple of lessons where I wore my flat work shoes, rather than my regular trainers, and it all felt different! The pressure on the pedals, the slipperiness of the soles, even how I needed to be just that little bit closer to the pedals caused me to overthink.  Driving in different shoes didn’t help in trying to learn how to drive.  You can learn how to handle different shoes once you’ve passed but for now, at least, stick to the same ol’ soles!

Another pre-lesson anxiety tip is to get your heart pumping with some easy cardio! Go for a jog, have a dance around the living room, get on the cross-trainer, walk the dog etc.  A lot of my issues with anxiety can be boiled down to the fact that I have excess energy and an overactive imagination.  Having both of those pent-up can be explosive under stressful circumstances!  Getting those reliable trainers on and getting moving can really help with taking that edge off of my anxiety and calming me down.  It tires me out enough so that I feel more “chill” behind the wheel.  Trust me, shaking off the excess energy works like a charm!

Similar Nike trainers to the ones I have:  Next

#3 – Meditation app, Calm

Meditation seems to be the self-care key to relaxation but, I don’t know about the rest of you, I CANNOT meditate without guidance! I need someone else’s voice, or some music, or even just some consistent ambient sounds to help snap the destructive thread of my thoughts.  Calm is the app for that! You can download the app for free and still be able to use all of its core functions.  There are guided meditations with a wide variety of themes as well as sleep stories, breathing exercises, nature sounds and ethereal music.  I’ve found time to use this app throughout my day, and I even have the crackling fireplace sound going through the night, but this app was at its best before a lesson and after a run on the treadmill.  I’d carve out 15 minutes before my lesson to just sit, eyes shut and with a self-esteem boosting meditation playing in my ears.  It adds that extra feeling of getting rid of that pent-up energy as well as simply looking after yourself, which is something we could all do with more of.

Get the App here: iTunesAndroid

#4 – Menstrual tracking app, Clue

This next one is specifically for my fellow lady-learners out there!  The days in the run-up to my period are always the worst for my anxiety.  I’m more likely to have sleep paralysis at night, panic attacks in the day and my social paranoia goes through the roof! Not knowing why your anxiety spikes can be just as difficult to handle as the symptoms themselves.   Having a free, reliable and user-friendly menstrual tracker like Clue at my fingertips has massively helped me in understanding those spikes and I was able to manage my lessons based on that.  If I knew that there was a lesson coming up on my more difficult PMS days then I tend to either change the day of the lesson or just take it easier in the lesson.  Knowing that I’m likely to struggle on that day due to PMS allows me to understand that it isn’t me, it’s my hormones doing their thing!  Knowledge is power!

Get the App here: iTunesAndroid

And there you have it!  I’m sure from this you can understand that there’s an awful lot that goes into achieving something like getting your driving licence when you have anxiety issues to work with. It is no mean feat but it can be done, I promise you!  The main message I can ever hope to share with anyone who reads my posts is that anxiety is never a stop sign. Never be ashamed of your anxiety no matter how matter how many times it takes for you to pass.  Because you will pass if you make the decision each and every time that this is what you want! Driving isn’t for everyone and that is more than OK but make sure that you’re doing it for you, and you alone, and that pressure will ease.

I have to say the biggest thank you to Krista, my instructor, for everything that she gave to getting me to my pass!  She is one hell of an instructor and she has my wholehearted recommendation for anyone in the Vale of Glamorgan/Cardiff area of Wales, UK.

If you’d like to book lessons with Krista, of Magnet Driving School, please click either of the below:
Magnet Driving School main website
Magnet Driving School Facebook

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