All the driving phobics I’ve met are women. At first, I thought it might be a girl thing, bound up with fears of the darker sides of machismo like racing, road rage and playing chicken. Yet all the women affected are in every other way extremely competitive — often more so than men. Then I started to think about the men I know, or hear about, who don’t drive or, more tellingly, have never learned. The classic way of avoiding a phobia is, of course, not to confront it.
It’s a truism to say that women are better at the confessional than men, but it is also true that women are three times as likely as men to suffer from an anxiety disorder — of which a phobia is one manifestation. One theory is that a phobia has to do with stress overload and causes of high blood pressure. The clinical psychologist I consulted some years ago took the view that a phobia might be a way of mentally dumping stress, so the phobia becomes a sort of dustbin of fear. Phobias particularly manifest themselves in overachieving people who constantly say they are fine, but actually deal with complex stresses by locking them away in a corner. Frances Bentley believes that if she didn’t have a driving phobia, it would be something else. “It’s a general anxiety that I put into one place. It’s connected with not having to feel you can achieve everything in your life, not having to be superwoman.”
She doesn’t take her phobia, which is specifically about motorways, too seriously — this is both a way of dealing with it and classic avoidance. “Yes, the fear is debilitating but I don’t think it’s a phobia in the way that other people have phobias, because they can’t move and I am moving.” Most weekends, she takes her children to stay with friends in the country. They take the train. “It is awkward for my friends who have to pick us up, but I always offer to take a taxi. I’d rather pay the money because the stress of thinking about the driving means I would get no rest or relaxation whatsoever.” She has never had an accident and can’t point to a reason for her phobia. “I keep thinking that one day I can achieve this dream of being able to get into a car and go from A to B without even thinking about it.” That dream is a classic on the phobic’s wish-list. So’s this: “I sometimes think that I might wake up and it won’t be a fear any more.”
Well, why not? If a phobia can appear out of nowhere, why shouldn’t it disappear as easily? It won’t, and hauling yourself out of it is a long and arduous process. When I finally plucked up the courage to see my GP for a referral to a therapist for treatment, I thought that analysing why I have a problem would be enough. She gave me all sorts of exercises to follow, including deep breathing and systematic desensitisation, which means confronting the phobic situation in gradual stages. First, you drive the car for a five-minute journey, then for 10 minutes and then for 15. Every day, you go a little further. I tried it for a while and decided that it didn’t work. In other words, I gave up.
According to Dr Hallstrom, that’s a common failing: “It takes time. You find that the people who have failed don’t work at it to extinction. That means doing the same journey three, five, 10 times a day if necessary.” It works — eventually. Coping techniques rarely come naturally. They are skills that can only be learned through practice. But put them together with cognitive behavioural therapy and you get somewhere much faster.
This is a relatively new treatment that produces encouraging results. “While psychoanalysis might help you to understand why it is that the car represents your mother’s womb and why you are trying to escape from it,” says Dr Hallstrom, “it still doesn’t help you drive your car. Modern therapies like the cognitive behavioural approach say to hell with the cause, let’s do something about it. Is it the car or the distance from home that frightens you? Let’s get into the car and, as you’re driving, tell me what’s going through your head. Do the same journey twice a day for a week until you’re screaming to be let out, then do it two more times.”
In other words, you literally bore your phobia into submission: “Boredom and anxiety are not mutually compatible.” I may just give it a try. It might drive me round the bend but, hey, at least I’ll be driving somewhere.