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How can I overcome panic attacks whilst driving and with people?

Hi Mark,

I suffer from getting lightheaded when in a close face-to-face conversation. Today I felt it while having an interview; I have also had it when in a meeting. I think it's the fear of the lightheadedness going on to be a panic attack.

I have had panic attacks several times in relation to being in traffic congestion or when I am stuck at the lights in traffic. A very bad panic attack at the intersection has stopped me driving out of my local area at all. As a result, I have a driving phobia now. Cannot do traffic at all and catch buses, which is time consuming. I can easily drive in my foothills suburb, however, as there are no traffic lights or cues of cars. And I don't therefore feel I'd ever get 'stuck' in a situation if panic was to start up.

This question was submitted by 'Sue'

mark tyrrell

Mark says...

Hi Sue and thank you for writing in.

I can appreciate how hard this must have been for you. Sometimes we can feel lightheaded to some extent when feeling anxious because anxiety, fear, and panic are essentially the body's way of preparing to undertake exercise. Rather than the term 'panic attack', I prefer the less showy but more accurate description 'inappropriate exercise response'.

It's interesting that, by the sounds of it, you didn't actually have a panic attack during the interview. This is partly because your running-away-from-or-fighting-a-lion-exercise-response tries to be as economical as possible. If it gets one hint that there isn't a real emergency requiring fast breathing, quickened pulse, sweating, and blood pumped into the major muscles for fighting or fleeing, it will 'stand down' very quickly. Just as firefighters may come to your property and do a check after a false alarm but won't stay around forever once there's an all clear.

Once the primitive fight or flight part of your brain experienced the reality that the interviewers didn't have spears or bows and arrows, then all you got was a bit of lightheadedness and not the full-blown emergency response. Stress and panic are meant to be switched off because it's a big investment of energy.

Because panic is such a stimulant, it makes us want to move and run. This is why people fear being 'trapped'. I've heard it so often said that people would feel better if they knew they could get off the plane or out of the car any time they choose. People have even said to me they would prefer it if they were flying the plane themselves or driving the train, even though they don't have experience doing so.

But panic is very trainable, like a guard dog - which is basically what it is. It has become trained to activate during traffic, but it can and will be untrained so that it only goes off when needed. So how do you train it?

Well, one way is to practice relaxing deeply whilst strongly imagining being in traffic or around other people. This is the fastest way to switch off anxiety, as new neuronal associations become quickly forged in the brain. During deep calm, if you can inwardly observe yourself driving with confidence and calm, then it really doesn't take long to change the automatic association and move driving in traffic (or encountering stoplights or people, for that matter) from the 'threatening' ('this requires physical exercise') category to the 'this is safe' category.

You don't say whether you have read '7 Steps to Stop a Panic Attack' or if you have put the tips to use. But if not, then do so. You can also check out my website on panic attacks and, of course, listen to the 'Overcome Panic Attacks' download pack and also the more specific 'Overcome Fear of Driving' session.

All best wishes,


watch icon Published by Mark Tyrrell - December 23rd, 2014 in

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