Learning to drive with anxiety

Anxiety about driving is quite common and can have different effects on different people. We explore whether it’s safe to drive with anxiety, and then look into tips and strategies you can use to make learning to drive less daunting.

Anxious female driver behind the wheel

In this article:

Is it safe to drive with anxiety?

This depends on you. For the most part, drivers with some form of anxiety will successfully pass their test, get their licence, and be safe to drive on the roads.

But there are some effects of anxiety that can hamper driving ability. For example, if periods of anxiety leave you feeling fatigued or lacking in concentration, it’s not the best idea to get behind the wheel. This is also true of feeling fatigued or lacking concentration generally. You should always feel alert and well rested before driving.

If your anxiety is debilitating, it’s a good idea to see a doctor anyway. They can recommend lifestyle changes that may help, and there are potentially medications available to relieve the symptoms.

Additionally, counselling is available on the NHS in the form of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Many find this to be a worthwhile treatment, as it can help with dealing with negative thoughts and unwanted behaviours.

There may be more serious symptoms that could affect your ability to drive safely. Frequent panic attacks, for instance, could be problematic when it comes to learning to drive. If you’re in any doubt, see your GP and they’ll be able to advise you.

Telling the DVLA about your anxiety

If your anxiety does affect your ability to drive safely, you’ll need to inform the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA).

In the case of anxiety and depression, as long as your doctor can confirm that there are no concentration problems, agitation, behavioural disturbance, or suicidal thoughts, the DVLA do not need to be told.

If your doctor thinks you could have severe driving anxiety, you must tell the DVLA about your condition. If you continue to drive against medical advice and you don't report your condition to the DVLA yourself, your doctor can do it without your permission.

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Choosing a driving instructor

Generally, we recommend everyone takes their time when choosing their driving instructor, but if you have anxiety then this is even more important. You want to feel at ease as you’ll be spending a fair amount of time with them and believe you can actually be taught by them.

With this in mind, don’t just go for the cheapest driving instructor, or the one with the most availability. Do some research beforehand.

You might get some good recommendations from family or friends. If you know someone with anxiety who’s successfully learned to drive, they may be a good person to contact for suggestions.

Before you commit to an instructor, meet them beforehand to see how you get on. Take a parent or friend along too, if this helps. Just a 5 minute chat should give you a good idea of whether they could be the right fit for you.

And if they don’t seem to be, it’s okay not to pick them as your instructor. It’s best not to get stuck with someone you don’t get on with – just be sure to check the cancellation policy so you know where you stand.

All Approved Driving Instructors (ADIs) go through rigorous training in dealing with all people and their requirements so don't hesitate to be honest about your anxiety. There's no judgement and you may find it makes it easier for certain requests during your lessons – like asking for breaks in order to calm your nerves. Be sure to talk about any specific topics you are apprehensive about.

Some pupils might prefer to learn with a female instructor.

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What to expect from your first driving lesson

Fear of the unknown can be a big deal for those with anxiety and can lead to fixation on what might happen. This is rarely helpful.

So it’s a good idea to understand exactly what your driving lessons will entail beforehand. You can read about what to expect from your first lesson here. Also, at the beginning of any driving lesson, your instructor should tell you what it'll cover. If you find it helpful, you could call them in advance of the lesson to find out.

Your instructor won’t take you out onto any busy roads for the first lesson, or even the first few lessons if you’re not ready for it. A good instructor will always take things at a pace you’re happy with, and not take you out of your comfort zone.

If you’re ever in any doubt, feel free to ask your instructor as many questions as you need. They’re there to support you, and there’s no such thing as a stupid question.

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How to prepare for driving lessons

Getting in the car with the right frame of mind is essential when taking driving lessons. Here are some tips to ensure you get the most out of your lessons:

  • Try to be relaxed and well-rested when you have a lesson – try not to have too much going on beforehand.
  • Always try to get a good night’s sleep the night before a lesson.
  • Avoid booking lessons too early in the day – make sure you give yourself plenty of time to have a good breakfast, get ready and calm your nerves.
  • Avoid rush-hour traffic and any local school runs.
  • You might be apprehensive about driving in the dark, so in the winter try to book lessons during daylight hours
  • You might want to consider looking into relaxation techniques, such as meditation.
  • If you find yourself overwhelmed during the lesson itself, it’s always okay to ask your instructor to take a break.
  • If you feel 1 hour isn’t long enough, but you don’t want to commit to 2 hours, ask your instructor if they would be willing to have a 1 ½ hour lesson.
  • Remember everyone is different and be open to finding out what works for you.

What to do if your confidence dips

Sometimes when we are learning to drive, we have good lessons and bad ones too. That is normal and to be expected, so don’t let it get you down when you have a bad lesson. It can be so disheartening but remember the tips above and be honest with your instructor about how you feel so they can best guide you.

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Get extra practice

Getting practice in addition to your lessons is highly recommended. This will help you feel more comfortable behind the wheel, and build confidence. As is often the case with anxiety, worrying about something is often worse than the doing.

With this in mind, ask a family member or friend you trust to accompany you for some additional practice. This will help you get used to driving at different times of day, and in different conditions.

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Tackling mental barriers 

It is quite common for drivers to tell you there is something they avoid or shy away at doing, like parallel parking, getting on a motorway or driving in the countryside. We know everyone is different and their day to driving can also differ from the next person. That’s okay, but if you have got your licence you need to make the most of it!

That’s why we have put some helpful guides together so you can feel confident tackling tricky aspects of the road:

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Will anxiety affect my car insurance?

Your insurance company can't charge a higher premium or increase excess without evidence that you're an increased risk; there's no general policy to charge more for people with anxiety as this would be unlawful discrimination.

The DVLA can't contact your car insurance provider on your behalf. It's your responsibility to let your insurer know about your anxiety if you're advised to by a doctor.

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Anxiety about your driving test 

Taking the driving test can feel scary, even if you don’t have anxiety! And sometimes the fear of failure can overwhelm your actual performance. Read our article on how to calm your driving test nerves.

But it’s important to remember that, if you’ve been put in for your test, your instructor knowsthat you’re a good enough driver to pass it.

And if you do fail? You’re in good company. Only 45.9% of learner drivers pass their test first time*. In other words, it’s more common to fail your test than it is to pass. As most people – including the author of this guide – don’t pass their test first time, it’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

Finally, good luck… You’ve got this!

*Practical driving test pass rate in Great Britain from April 2019 to March 2020, Department for Transport (DfT) and Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA)

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Additional lessons and tuition

Even when you’ve passed your test, the anxiety about more complex driving or the unknown like getting on the motorway can be off-putting.

One of the best things you can do is to keep driving regularly - if you always let your partner or a friend drive, then you'll find it more difficult if you need to drive at some point.

And sometimes we all need a boost, so we recommend taking additional lessons to take you that step further.

You might want to do a Pass Plus course – a 6-hour course recognised by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA), aimed to enhance driving ability.

If motorways seem daunting, we also offer motorway driving lessons to put those fears at ease.

If it’s been a while since you’ve passed your test, as it often can be if you’ve been saving for a car, you can always take a refresher lesson to feel confident behind the wheel again.

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