Panic attacks, episodes of incredibly intense fear or anxiety that come on suddenly, often without warning, can occur anytime at any place. These episodes, characterized sometimes by feeling that one is having a heart attack or dying, or a feeling of impending doom, can last from a few seconds to as much as half an hour.
One of the most dangerous places to suffer a panic attack is when you’re behind the wheel of a car. Imagine, you’re driving your kid home from school, or driving the local office car pool, and suddenly, you find it hard to breathe, you experience chest pains, and you feel as if you’re about to die. Depending upon the road conditions, the speed of travel, and many other factors, this level of distraction could have disastrous consequences, not only for you, but for those in the vehicle with you, as well as others on the road.
Panic attacks can strike anyone, but certain people are more at risk than others. Persons with a family history of panic attacks or disorder, those who have suffered a traumatic incident or a significant change in their life, and people – especially adolescents – with parents prone to negativism or overly cautious or fearful behavior patterns. Panic attacks cannot really be predicted, nor really can they be prevented. Knowledge of the reasons for panic attacks, however, can help to mitigate the severe effect. If you suspect you suffer from chronic panic attacks, or panic disorder, it is advisable to seek medical diagnosis and treatment, as this can also be a sign of some other more serious physical disorder.
Understanding that you are having a panic attack and not a heart attack, as difficult as that might seem under such stressful circumstances, could spell the difference between getting home safely and being involved in a catastrophic accident. Analyzing your situation to determine if you’re at greater risk is the first step. Having regular physical checkups to ensure you have no other physical problems also helps. When the panic attack hits, its helpful to be able to tell yourself, “It’s not a heart attack, my doctor just gave me a clean bill of health.”
Whenever you suffer a panic attack, the first thing you should try to do is remain calm, but this is especially important if you happen to be behind the wheel of several tons of rapidly moving steel on the highway. Deep breathing, but avoid mouth breathing which can cause hyperventilation and exacerbate your feeling of panic; tensing and relaxing the main muscle groups; and visualizations of calm images can help to ease the feelings of anxiety, and some of the physical symptoms as well. The important thing is to continue to maintain control of the vehicle until you can safely exit the travel lanes and park. This might be difficult if you’re on a heavily traveled motorway such as an Interstate, or if you’re in the middle of rush hour traffic, but it is important that you not allow your symptoms to distract you from the safe operation of your car.
Once you’ve been able to safely stop and park the car, do a mental assessment to make sure you’re not really suffering some physical attack. A panic attack will normally peak within about ten minutes, and as the symptoms begin to fade, you should be able to resume normal driving. If symptoms last longer than 30 minutes, seek immediate emergency medical attention.
If you have another licensed driver with you in the vehicle, after safely stopping and parking, let that person take over behind the wheel. If you’re the only licensed driver, and particularly if you’re transporting children, it’s important that you try to avoid actions that might cause panic among your passengers. For children, an explanation that you suddenly didn’t feel well, so you pulled over until the ‘fainting spell’ passed will help. A little humor at this point will not only help ease your passengers’ concerns, but it might also help to ease your own anxiety.
Situations To Avoid
If you suspect you might be prone to panic attacks, there are a number of driving situations you should try to avoid.
High-speed roadways: Some of our expressways, Interstates, and other limited access roadways are crowded with all manner of vehicles moving at high speeds. The distraction of a panic attack on an Interstate highway surrounded by 18-wheelers moving at sixty-plus miles per hour could be fatal. If you can, take alternate routes with lower speed limits and less traffic to give yourself that extra margin of safety should a panic attack occur.
Hazardous roadways: This should be a no-brainer. Mountainous roads or roads with many hairpin turns and blind curves are no place for a person at risk of a panic attack.
Places with heavy pedestrian traffic: Often pedestrians will step into the roadway, under the assumption that motorist are paying attention. This isn’t always true even under normal circumstances, but if you’re driving the car approaching the intersection, and a panic attack strikes, you’re going to have a lot on your mind. This is especially true in school zones that don’t have crossing guards. If you know that an area will have heavy pedestrian traffic at certain times, try and avoid it if you can.
In our mobile age, it is nearly impossible for anyone to get along without a car. Much of the foregoing advice will be extremely difficult for most of us to follow one hundred percent of the time. Having it in mind, however, will arm you with a better ability to deal with a panic attack and not end up in a worse situation.
To learn more about how to overcome panic attacks please review the Panic Puzzle Program, available for $70.