Tips for Surviving a Road Trip With Claustrophobia

Four friends passed out in the backseat of a car

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A fear of driving is quite common in people with claustrophobia; the feeling of being confined in a small car can trigger anxiety. Indeed, balancing the appeal of road trips with the realities of claustrophobia requires a difficult juggling act, but there's no reason it can’t be done.

The first step in planning a road trip with claustrophobia is to decide whether you'll drive or ride. Some people with claustrophobia report that their fear is worse as passengers, while others are more afraid of being the driver. Driving your own car provides a sense of control. You can decide when and where to stop and how many miles to cover in a day. Your car is familiar to you, which can provide comfort and minimize related concerns about safety and reliability.

On the other hand, being the driver gives you increased responsibility. You'll have to manage traffic on unfamiliar roads. You'll need to maintain focus, and will not be able to use coping strategies to take your mind off the road. Some people find that being responsible for the safety of those in their car actually heightens their anxiety.

Six Tips for Traveling With Claustrophobia 

Although road trips present unique challenges for those who suffer from claustrophobia, there's no need to dread them. Careful planning can help keep you calm and relaxed, and you may even find yourself enjoying the sights along the way.

Plan your route. Perhaps the biggest advantage of driving over other means of transportation for those with claustrophobia is that there are almost limitless routes between Point A and Point B. Plan out a route that best meets your needs, but allow yourself to remain flexible. Start by asking yourself a few questions:

  • Do you need to arrive at a particular time?
  • Do you want to stick to interstates or see the scenery along the way?
  • What will you do about meals –- picnic at a rest area, grab fast food or seek out local diners?
  • How many hours do you want to spend in the car at a stretch?
  • Where will you stop for the night?

Choose compassionate travel companions. Carefully choosing your traveling companions is key to any successful road trip. And if you have claustrophobia, it's even more important. Whether you're the driver or passenger, you'll need to know that the other people in the car will be supportive. You might suddenly need to pull off the road and walk around. You might experience a panic attack in heavy traffic. Whatever happens, the reaction of your traveling companion can greatly influence your own emotions.

Get plenty of sleep. In the days leading up to your trip, be sure to maintain a healthy sleep schedule. Starting a road trip relaxed and refreshed instead of exhausted can help keep anxiety at bay. During the trip, resist the urge to drive too many hours in a single day. Check into a hotel each night rather than trying to save money by napping at rest areas.

Stay hydrated and well-fed. Carry several bottles of water and an assortment of healthy snacks in the car. Try to maintain your normal dining schedule, and take the mealtime opportunity to get off the road and relax.

Use your car’s GPS to monitor traffic. A good GPS can help you avoid traffic jams and change your route mid-trip if you find that the original plan is increasing rather than decreasing your anxiety. If there's not an easy-to-follow alternative route, consider stopping wherever you are to shop or visit an attraction, giving the traffic a chance to clear.

Have a plan for panic attacks. If you feel a panic attack starting, get off the road immediately. If you're the driver, consider simply stopping on the shoulder if there's no nearby exit. If you're the passenger, ask the driver to pull off at the next exit. Let the others in the car know what's happening. They may be able to talk you down. Otherwise, use the coping strategies that work for you, such as guided visualization or breathing exercises. Get out of the car if it's safe to do so and get some fresh air. Ride out the attack before proceeding.

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Article Sources

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  • American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.