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'The thought of driving a car paralyses me'

'Family and friends don't understand this and think it's a joke'

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Joanna, a UAE-based reader, asks:  I am 22-years old and my problem is driving. I have an obvious driving phobia, but I can't fix it because I can't afford therapy.

My phobia is due to couple of traumatizing experiences. I managed to get my driving license with a lot of effort.  However, just after getting my licence I had a minor car accident, which could've been fatal, after a drunk driver hit me while driving with his family.

Since then, I lost all my confidence and I feel paralyzed when thinking about driving a car. I didn't  want to get a driving licence in the first place, because I knew I had a problem. I went for it due to the nature of my work and transportation issues. I have been under a lot of stress for the past three years and I've been trying to support my family.

Now, I'm unemployed and I really need to find a job, but I am held back due to the fact that I can't even picture myself driving anymore. I haven't been able to sleep and it's consuming my mind and stopping me from doing anything. I find it difficult to leave the house no matter who's driving. I can't breathe from fear sometimes, the worst part of this is I can’t handle the thought of hurting someone while driving. Family and friends don't understand this and think it's a joke and think that if they force me to drive again I will get over it. I haven't been able to talk about this to anyone.

Please, I am desperate, I need an answer. How can I overcome this problem. I need my life back. I am unable to function and communicate with anyone because I have been so angry and the build up of emotions are hurting me. Isn't this simple but why is it so hard for me. Please help!

Linda Sakr (licensed Counselling Psychologist, Dubai Community Health Centre) replies: It sounds to me as though you have had quite a traumatic experience. Perhaps, before the accident, the dangers of driving were merely an abstract concept. Now you know from your own experience how fragile life truly is and how much we depend on others following the rules to keep us safe. Your fear is justified, you’ve temporarily lost your ability to switch off the awareness of dangers, something we all have to do to get into a car without panicking.

In order to overcome this driving phobia, the first thing to do is to give yourself time. Then put yourself quite literally in the driver’s seat. Just get in a car and sit there. Don’t start the engine. Just sit in the car and slow your breathing down. You may have to do this several times before you feel comfortable. The next step is to start the engine. If that panics you, again just stay put and calm yourself. Do this as many times as you need to. Next, just drive up and down your street. Take each step slowly. Calm yourself. Do it until you are comfortable. There’s no rush. Take it step by step until you are driving to where you need to be. Over time, you’ll be fine – with one important difference. You will probably be a much more alert and careful driver.

It has been proven that panic attacks do not cause loss of control. If for example, your natural inclination is to drive fast then I would recommend you drive slowly and if you are naturally a slow driver, I would recommend you drive fast. Oddly, this increases your sense of being in control. Of course, getting somebody to do something they have been especially afraid of, often for years, is not easy. Visualise success when it comes to driving as well as finding a job. It takes time, and, usually is accomplished in small steps.

I wish you well.

DisclaimerThis blog is a conversation and is not an alternative for treatment. The recommendations and suggestions offered by our panel of psychiatrists are their own and Gulf News will not take any responsibility for the advice they provide.