Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Get Some Distraction in Your Life

Driving on the highway has always been my number one anxiety trigger. My first panic attack did not happen behind the wheel of a car, but all of them since then have. To this day I get very anxious when approaching an on-ramp to the interstate. The thought of a long road trip used to horrify me. I've always loved to travel (ironic?) and as a kid I even enjoyed the journey as much as the destination. As an adult with panic disorder, I've come to dread the journey. I love the destinations, but that love is dampened by my fear of getting there.

I have made some large strides lately, however. A few months ago, I wrote about my road trip to Charleston. I was extremely excited that I successfully drove the entire way there. Since then I have traveled to Indiana, and most recently Charlotte without a single panic attack. I'm still holding on to my streak, with my last one occurring in April and confident that there isn't one on the horizon.

During my trip to Charlotte (yesterday), I had a little bit of a rough start. I attribute this slight setback to the extreme amount of stress I have gone through over the past few months. Divorce is no fun! I don't recommend it. I started off just fine, the first stretch is familiar territory for me now, but after about 15 miles I started to feel that familiar old feeling. My thoughts became fuzzy and unclear, my heart started to race, my breathing got shallower, and I began to fidget in my seat. "OH NO! IT'S HAPPENING!" is what was being screamed inside my head as I looked for the nearest exit.

Of course I was nowhere near an exit, so I had to tough it out. The first instinct is to clench up and try to "fight" the panic attack off. I know from experience that this doesn't work. It will just bring the panic rushing on faster. So I reached into my mental bag of tricks. I started to focus on my breathing as I took deep breaths. I practiced acceptance. Refusing to fight the oncoming attack allows the worst of it to pass.

Then, I switched to the passing lane. While going faster seems counter-intuitive here, it actually helps me. It gives me something to focus on while I am passing some cars. Slowing down into the slow lane will give your mind little to focus on besides the panic. Having some distraction is crucial. Using numbers as a distraction is something that I have used with some success in the past. I am not a math whiz by any means. This may contribute to the effectiveness of math as a distraction. For others, it may be a different topic that causes their mind to work harder. For me, it's numbers, usually money. If I need a distraction, I start plotting out my finances in my head or thinking of a plan to save for that new car that I really want.

Now, finances might not be the best distraction for you if your financial circumstances are particularly bleak. I'd choose something else. Anything that can bring positive thoughts but which causes you to have to think deeply. Planning something usually works well.

After I overcame this initial bout of panic. I was able to coast the rest of the way to my destination and was almost sad when it was over. I was having a good time thinking about things. The thoughts had gone from money to planning out what I will do for the rest of the week to thinking of ideas for my blog (and thus Stigma Smash was born!).


  1. Hi Aaron,

    I know all too well those triggers of an impending sensation of a panic attack while driving a car. In fact, my sensations were compounded when I moved to England from Canada and realised that I had to be on the opposite side of the road.

    I have always taken great pride in my driving and the ability to focus on positive resources while concentrating on the journey. However and here's irony for you, one night, my car got ploughed into by an ambulance. Completely their fault. For the next two years, I stopped driving.

    Then, I faced the ultimate test, bought a new car and drove on my own to visit some friends who lived 200 miles away. I kept visualising the journey's end and the smile on the faces of my friends. That worked plus a bit of soothing music on the stereo.

    Anyway, your thoughtful posting demonstrates that your bouts of panic will not get the better of you. Your mental bag of tricks are applauded. Indeed, you found you could actually find inspiration from your ability to challenge your fear. Well done, my friend.

    And yes, time to eradicate the unfair stigma, the labels, the stereotypes that still surround mental health issues.

    With respect and happy journeys, your way, Gary

  2. Thank you for your reply, Gary!
    That is amazing that you were able to overcome the fear of driving after an accident like that!