Boost your confidence before driving after an accident

Dear Patti,

I’m 77 and was in excellent health until I was hit by an intoxicated driver six months ago.    

I ended up with a broken hip, two large wounds and had to stay in a rehabilitation center for two months. I had to relearn simple tasks like how to balance, walk, take a shower and tie my shoes. I’m very grateful to have finished that process and be back at home.

I’m not afraid of getting in another accident, but I am extremely nervous about getting behind the wheel of a car and driving again. As my family will attest, I’m a very good driver with good eyesight and keen reflexes, but I’m kept up at night worrying about the possibility of not being able to drive anymore. I’m becoming more and more apprehensive. I’m very independent and hate the idea of being a burden on others if I can’t drive. If I’m calm and focused and still unsuccessful, maybe that would be a signal to stop driving. If I fail because of my nerves, though, it would be a terrible shame.

Do you have any suggestions on how to keep my composure?

  — Steve

Dear Steve, 

You’re not alone in your angst concerning aging; specifically, being unable to accomplish normal tasks and subsequently becoming a burden on others. Whether it’s due to generalized aging, illness or an accident, it’s not uncommon for anxiety to occur when an elderly person has a strong need to perform but becomes so afraid of failure that all his knowledge, experience and confidence flies out the window. Concentration can also be impacted by extreme stress or following a traumatic event. When your anxiety level is so high that cognitive disruption (unclear thinking) occurs, it’s important to understand the causes.

Let’s start with thinking of your body as a radio with three channels. One is a channel to all your thoughts, another channel taps into the physical and emotional feelings in your body, and the third is all of your senses (smell, taste, sight, touch and hearing) which connect you to the outside world. Since it’s difficult to listen to three radio stations simultaneously, it’s important to focus separately on what each channel is communicating.

First, let’s concentrate on your thoughts. Explore your worst fears; i.e., losing your independence. Face these thoughts, explore possible alternatives, and then turn that channel off. Don’t allow yourself to ruminate, especially when trying to drive again. Every time these frightening thoughts return, dismiss them by saying “I don’t need to scare myself.” Concentrate on how to carry out your driving skills and knowledge of traffic laws and stay focused in present time.

I’d recommend starting to drive by sitting in your car, in your driveway and focusing on the second channel — your physical and emotional feelings. Imagine yourself actually driving. Do you have physical anxiety symptoms such as knots or butterflies in your stomach, racing heartbeat, shallow breathing or tense muscles? Are you experiencing feelings such as sadness or anger? If so, pay attention to these feelings and focus on your symptoms until they go away. Recline your seat, lean back, stretch out, close your eyes and breathe in and out, deeply and slowly. Count backwards from 10 to one, feeling the tension gently leave your body with each breath as you relax your feet and legs, your torso, your arms and hands and, lastly, your neck and head. When you’re completely relaxed, open your eyes and, again, imagine yourself starting the car and driving. Repeat this relaxation exercise each time the anxiety returns until you’ve desensitized your fears and can easily visualize yourself confidently driving. Even under stress, you’ll be able to recall the knowledge and skills you know you have.

When your thoughts are relatively free of fear and worry and your body is calm and relaxed, focus on the third channel —giving full attention to your senses. Stay in the present and focus on the task at hand. You were able to re-learn how to balance, walk, take a shower and tie your shoes. There’s no valid reason not to have confidence you will also add driving to your list of accomplishments. 


Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.