How Does Exposure Therapy Reduce Driving Phobia?


Exposure therapy is used by professionals to treat a variety of anxiety disorders. The treatment is especially effective for people who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or have a specific phobia.

According to PsychCentral, exposure therapy can help people with PTSD by teaching them to look back at negative memories without anxiety. For people with phobias, the therapy “gradually exposes patients to what frightens them and helps them cope with their fears.”

Phobic patients and people with other anxiety disorders experience unpleasant physical symptoms when confronted with certain situations or objects. Some of the reactions the body has to stress in an anxious person are:

  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Upset stomach
  • Nausea
  • Muscle tension

These physical ailments can be monitored in order to determine how to reduce stressful reactions in highly anxious people.

A study from Stanford did just this by taking a scientific approach to treating participants who had driving phobia. The researchers used equipment to keep track of the patients’ heart rate, breathing rate, and perspiration while they performed various driving tasks. The participants were also asked to rate their anxiety level on a scale while driving during the study.

One phobic participant was given the task of driving on a highway. She reported very high levels of anxiety during her first session. Being directly exposed to her fears, however, eventually had a calming effect; she was able to drive with comfort and confidence by her third driving session in the study.

It was observed that people who have driving phobia actually hyperventilate — that is, they breathe too quickly and expel too much carbon dioxide. This is because they feel stressed and the body is trying to overcompensate for an impending emergency. Driving in itself is not usually an emergency, so this reaction is more of a “false alarm.” Hyperventilation can actually cause the anxious person to feel more stressed and overwhelmed. This is why deep breathing and relaxation techniques are often an essential part of treating anxiety disorders.

Further  Tips and Information for Anxiety Relief

Exposure therapy is shown by the Stanford study, among many others, to be highly effective in treating anxiety. It is recommended for people with PTSD, OCD, and phobias.

People who suffer from these mental health issues or similar anxiety disorder may also want to try a relatively simple technique which can be learned quickly and costs nothing. It is called diaphragmatic breathing, which involves breathing fully from the diaphragm to return to a calmer state.

Practicing diaphragmatic breathing and being professionally treated by a licensed professional can lead to significant improvement. The sooner you begin treatment, the sooner you can see a reduction in anxiety.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

mikedavis February 22, 2013 at 8:55 pm

Does exposure therapy only work under the supervision of a professional? I ask because I’ve been trying to do my own version of exposure therapy by forcing myself to get behind the wheel but I really think I’m making things worse, instead of better.


Rich Presta February 24, 2013 at 12:13 am

I think it’s always a good idea to consult a source of some kind, but it doesn’t need to be an in-person consultation with a therapist. The programs available the page here I think are great!


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