Driving can be terrifying to someone with depersonalization and derealization disorder. It can debilitate their life. What causes this fear and how can we overcome it?
I had a big fear of driving when I suffered from chronic depersonalization and derealization. I’d dread being on the road, especially on freeways. Depersonalization and derealization restricted many areas of my life, but it especially restricted my ability to commute long distances.
Thankfully, I lived in a city with good public transport. It also had good bike lanes, so I could ride my bike to meet up with friends or go to work. But when it came to commuting away from my city, I’d feel extremely anxious even thinking about it.
My Fear of Driving During Depersonalization
Many of you reading this article know what it is like to drive your car when experiencing DP/DR. For those who are not privy to this experience, let me tell you how it was for me.
Not only did I experience fear when I was driving a car, but I’d start getting anxious days in advance of an upcoming trip. I remember losing sleep on a few occasions the night before an upcoming trip. I’d lie awake worrying whether I might be able to drive carefully the following day.
At this point, I have to inform you that DP/DR doesn’t directly affect your ability to drive the way alcohol or drugs do. Your senses are not impaired. You can react to events pretty quickly.
The problem is that you just feel completely weirded out. You start feeling as if you are in a dream world when driving. This unreal feeling is known as derealization. You feel your environment suddenly change while driving. This especially happened to me when I was driving on the freeways. Something about the wide-open space of a freeway coupled with the fact that I was supposed to be going over 50mph (about 80 km/hr) made me feel extremely uneasy.
I can only describe the feeling as bizarre. DP/DR while driving made me feel like I was in one of those “Need for Speed” types of car-racing video games. Of course, I wasn’t hallucinating. I wasn’t seeing things or anything like that. I just felt the environment was like a dream and everything appeared bright and unreal.
On top of this, I’d sometimes feel disconnected from myself. This is usually called depersonalization. I’d feel as if I was somewhere else instead of being in the here and now.
I’d also feel lighter in my body. My limbs felt loose and weightless. I’d often have scary intrusive thoughts such as, “What if I lose control of my limbs?” The intrusive thoughts were often about losing control and endangering my life and those of my passengers.
Needless to say, DP/DR made my driving experience hellish. And it’s not just me. Thousands of people who suffer from depersonalization and derealization have the exact same experience.
For some, driving every day is a necessity. They might not be able to take public transport to work or to buy groceries. For such people, DP/DR can completely put their life on a leash. Their freedom to travel becomes highly confined to a few blocks of walking. If they are fortunate, they can take an Uber everywhere, but these bills quickly add up.
Why Depersonalization Causes Fear of Driving
Many of you suffering from this might be wondering why this is happening to you. You might be thinking, “Why can’t I just drive like everybody else?”
Why do we feel so stressed, unreal, and depersonalized while driving?
The answer to these questions is the fact that driving, believe it or not, is actually pretty stressful. Do you remember the first time you learned to drive? Do you remember how stressed out you were? Try to remember the time when you first hit the highway. During those times, you were learning a new skill. A dangerous skill, if you will, one that could potentially cripple or even kill you. So, it’s no wonder you were feeling stressed when learning to drive.
Over time, this fear of driving goes from the forefront of your awareness to the back. Your brain understands how to drive, and with a lot of practice, you get the hang of it. Then it sort of becomes second nature to you. You are not constantly thinking about how to drive, you just do it.
All of the dangers of driving are still present, but your brain learns to ignore them since it now feels confident in its ability to drive. You feel safe. And once you feel safe and confident about something, all of your fears just slide into the background.
But when you start experiencing depersonalization and derealization, it starts affecting your sense of safety. This experience is so bizarre and not even many medical doctors can help you with it. Because of this, we are filled with fear. We feel something bad is waiting to happen.
DP/DR robs you of your feeling of safety. Without a feeling of safety, all of the fears in the back of your mind, the ones you were able to ignore, now come straight into the field of your awareness.
To add more fuel to this fire, the fear and the lack of feeling safe actually trigger more of the DP/DR and they keep feeding on each other. The DP/DR creates a sense of danger, and this feeling of danger in turn produces more depersonalization and derealization.
Now when you are driving, all of those fears that are lurking in the background come to the foreground of your awareness. As mentioned before, everyone has some fear of driving, but these fears usually do not impair most people. But when you experience DP/DR, these fears are amplified to the extent that you feel completely unsafe while driving.
How I Overcame my Fear of Driving during DP/DR
I’m happy to report that I have successfully overcome this fear. I now own a car and I drive around a lot. I’m able to take the freeways and go on long road trips.
I found a way to recover from DP/DR. Once I started recovering, I was pleased to find that my fear of driving also reduced. I stopped feeling unreal while driving. My environment now feels normal. Most of the time, I’m very relaxed while driving. I listen to a podcast or have a friendly chat with my passenger. I don’t dread driving anymore. I drive, just like everyone else, and I feel safe while doing so.
But if you are someone who has an intense fear of driving, then I’d like to share some tips that helped me during the time I had to drive while experiencing DP/DR.
This is a reminder that I share these tips of mine for informational purposes only. You should do your own research and consult with a medical doctor before trying to implement what worked for me.
Tip #1 I kept reiterating my safety
As mentioned before, DP/DR robs you of your feeling of safety. You feel like you are not in control and that something dangerous could happen at any time. When I understood this, I found unique ways to feel safe during my DP/DR. I did this not only when I was driving, but throughout the day. This helped me build an underlying feeling of safety.
Whenever I felt unsafe driving, I’d tell myself that I was safe at that moment. I kept telling myself that I had years of driving under my belt. I developed the belief that my clean driving record would continue to let me drive safely, even though I was experiencing unsafe thoughts. I solidified my faith in the ability to drive safely through positive self-talk.
Tip #2 I knew I could pull over if I wanted
One of the positive self-talk strategies I’d use when driving while depersonalized was telling myself that I could stop the car anytime I wanted to. I told myself I could just pull over to the side of the road or take the nearby freeway exit. I did not consider this a defeat. It was totally fine to pull over safely to the shoulder of a road or take the first freeway exit.
Knowing I had this escape helped me keep going further and further in my journey. Once you understand you are safe and you know you can pull over whenever you want, your mind stops catastrophizing the situation. The fear lessens a bit.
Tip #3 I practiced on empty streets
Before going on a long journey, I would drive around safe and less trafficked streets to get the hang of it. I’d do this to demonstrate to myself that I am a safe and careful driver.
After practicing for a few minutes, I’d take the freeway. At that point, I knew the DP/DR would kick in, but I told myself that it was ok. I had to not let my fear get the best of me. By slowly exposing yourself to your fears, you can overcome them. This is the principle behind exposure therapy.
I had to show myself that I was a safe and careful driver despite feeling depersonalized and derealized. Even driving a few miles on the freeway and slowly becoming ok with experiencing DP/DR while driving was worth it to me.
I told myself to accept the DP/DR and be ok with it. There was no use fighting it. Fighting these feelings only increases their intensity. So, I’d continue to drive despite feeling the DP/DR. Deep down, I tried to cultivate faith in my driving abilities. I told myself that all the practice runs made me a very good driver and that DP/DR cannot affect my driving skill. It can make me feel weird, but it can never make me a bad driver.
Tip #4 Sticking to the slow lane
Sometimes, I’d just move over to the slowest lane. In the US, this is the right-most lane. People sometimes make fun of slow-moving right lane traffic, but I didn’t care. All I wanted was to reach my destination safely.
I’d also find a safe driver in the slow lane and just follow them. I’d make sure to leave a healthy distance between myself and their vehicle. I just focused on the vehicle in front of me and made sure that I was slow and steady in following them. This gave me a sense of comfort and ease. All I had to do was follow the car in front of me. If I kept doing that, then I’d get to where I wanted. If they changed direction, then I’d follow another person in the same way until I reached my destination safely.
Tip #5 Have a passenger friend
Once in a while, I would ask a friend or colleague to join me on my trip. I’d inform this friend that I may ask them to take over and drive at some point. If the friend was close to me, I’d even let them know about my issue with DP/DR and driving. I’d help them understand that I’d never put them in jeopardy, but just knowing that they could take over and drive would help me calm my nerves. This is very similar to tip #2 of pulling over anytime you wanted. Just knowing that I had someone to take over driving duties relaxed me. That relaxation worked as an antidote to the stress and DP/DR feelings.
Tip #6 Experiment with other things
Finally, I learned to experiment with a few things to help me with the fear of driving. I found that depersonalization and derealization can make it appear as if everything is bright, so having sunglasses helped me calm my nerves during the daytime.
I’d sometimes listen to a podcast or play my favorite band or artist. Singing out loud in my car made me feel at ease. Now and then, I’d listen to stand-up comedy to help lighten the mood while driving.
Everyone’s different. We may have to try a few things to figure out what can help us relax and drive with ease.
All right, I hope you learned something from these tips. Fear of driving is something a lot of people experience. This fear is especially common among depersonalization and derealization sufferers. These were some tips that I used to overcome my fear of driving. Once I began to recover from DP/DR, the fear of driving started fading away. I became more and more confident in my driving skill and felt safer on the road. I hope that the same happens to you as well.
Let me know in the comments if you have any other tips that you’d like to share and help the DP/DR community out.
Image Credits: Dall-E, Stability AI, Pexels