Some that experience anxiety while driving often report an inability to breathe normally. They may have feelings of being unable to take a deep breath, as if their throat or chest were closing in. They may find themselves gasping and gulping for air or with fears of suffocating, having a heart attack or lung disorder. Fears of losing control may present themselves stemming from the perceived inability to control one’s own breathing. All of these situations are common with the panic that relates to a fear of driving and causes discomfort and more advanced symptoms, but none are physically dangerous. The goal in learning to breathe properly is not to prevent suffocation or any physical problem, which won’t occur anyway, but to prevent the uncomfortable sensations that result from breathing in this manner. The body can be trained to use proper breathing using simple techniques.
The act of over breathing, or hyperventilating, results in the body taking in far too much carbon dioxide than is needed. Take a look at just some of the symptoms caused by hyperventilation and see if they look at all familiar:
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In all likelihood at least some of the above are sensations of anxiety you experience while driving that you never before attributed to your breathing style during anxiety. Learning to breathe properly can reduce or eliminate a wide range of symptoms associated with the fear of driving. You may not even be aware that you’re breathing improperly. You may also not be hyperventilating in the familiar sense that you may have seen in movies, where the person is gasping for air and they put a paper bag over the mouth (to slow the rate of exhaled carbon dioxide), it’s almost always much less obvious than that. The anxious driver is frequently unaware that they are over breathing, but it only take a small change in the mix of oxygen to carbon dioxide to be upset to cause panic-like symptoms and additional anxiety. You may also find yourself holding your breath, which results in a similar list of problems.
One of the most widely taught methods of breathing for anxiety and panic is controlled, diaphragmatic breathing. It has been widely known that people with general anxiety or panic tend to breathe from their chest (thoracic) and not their stomach (diaphragmatic). It’ easy to tell which you are breathing from whether in everyday situations or while working on your fear of driving.
Place one hand on your stomach, and the other on your chest, right over the breastbone. We’re going to use your hands to determine what muscles you are using to breathe. As you breathe, pay attention to which hand is rising and which is falling. If it is mostly or exclusively the hand on your chest, you aren’t breathing from your diaphragm and need to work on teaching your body to breathe from the lower lungs. If it is only the hand on your belly moving, then you’re breathing well in this situation but should recheck your breathing when anxious to ensure you maintain your breathing pattern. Sometimes people are reluctant to believe that they’re breathing incorrectly, but simply look at the way a baby or dog breathes, they breathe in a relaxed manner with their bellies moving up and down, their chest stays still. This is the way nature intended us to breathe and where we must return.
If you find yourself needing to correct your breathe, below is a basic exercise that should be done as often as possible to retrain yourself. we typically advise that at the top of every hour, you check where you’re breathing from and correct if necessary. Setting an hourly alarm on your watch is a fantastic idea. With enough work you’ll actually move your unconscious breathe from the upper lung to the lower lung and experience greatly reduced anxiety and physical symptoms of tension.
There is also a more advanced breathing technique that can help you in the midst of an anxiety or panic attack to actually play a role in eliminating the fearful feelings. The Driving Fear Program does an excellent job of teaching the strategy to assist those with more bothersome anxiety, panic, or phobias related to the fear of driving or specific driving situations such as highway driving or driving over bridges.