Jane Druker used to be confident behind the wheel – until she hit midlife. And she’s not alone – doctors say menopause driving anxiety is a recognised symptom
“I was sitting in my car at a familiar junction and the lights were on red. I’d driven this route almost every week for the past 12 years, but suddenly lost the ability to breathe, my vision went blurry, the sweat started to pool in my armpits and trickle down my chest. My arms shook as I gripped the steering wheel. When the lights finally changed to green, the relief I felt was rapturous and freeing.”
This was beauty editor Jane Druker’s first experience of menopause driving fear. It started at the age of 50 and in the seven years since, has kept her from taking to the wheel unless absolutely necessary.
“For me, it was specifically a fear around driving on roads where there was space and speed, particularly motorways and dual carriageways. It would send me into frequent and frightening panic attack meltdowns. It didn’t help that I lived right next to the North Circular, one of the busiest multi-lane routes in London. I felt unsafe, vulnerable, exposed.”
Some people count 34 symptoms of menopause, others 42. From vaginal dryness to osteoporosis, this unwelcome life stage can undermine our daily existence in many different ways, and menopause driving anxiety - often coming to light as a sudden fear of motorway driving - is yet another. It sounds almost unbelievable, especially if, like Druker, you’ve driven confidently for 40 years without a hitch. “I’m aware of how absurd it sounds,” she says. ”I’m an adult woman in my fifties, I’ve worked on three continents, I have a husband, a son and a giant mortgage. I got my driver’s licence in 1982; I am no newbie behind the wheel!”
Fear of driving in menopause – how common is it?
“It’s definitely something many women comment on during the hormonal change of perimenopause into menopause,” says Dr Liz Andrew, accredited menopause specialist and consultant at Menopause Care. “The issue is incredibly common - and not limited to taking the wheel. Some of us feel even worse in the passenger seat!”
It’s a major discussion topic on forums and on Instagram. When medical journalist Fiona Clark posted on her @harleystreetemprium Instagram account which focuses on menopause, posted about that she had experienced both ‘vehophobia’ (fear of driving) and 'amaxophobia' (fear of being a passenger) – yes there are names for it! – she was inundated with comments.
For her own part, she became afraid particularly of “merging into traffic on a motorway… I’d feel my heart rate going up just thinking about it” and avoided driving “until my husband got sick and I had to take him to hospital every day for two weeks, and I thought ‘I can do this’.”
Women like Druker recount instances of ending up on the hard shoulder suffering a panic attack with kids or elderly parents in the back, or thinking they’ve gone crazy after being overwhelmed with fear on a dual carriageway. The condition is confidence-sapping and can be life-altering.
One woman posted on the Menopause Matters forum that going on HRT helped. “Almost immediately my commute became easier and I can now actually smile whilst driving and even sing along to the radio now,” she said.
For Druker, HRT didn’t seem necessary as driving anxiety was the only insurmountable menopause symptom she had. “I don't even like taking paracetamol.”
But she did have to change her driving behaviour. “If I did have to drive, I avoided the ‘monster road’ and basically took the long route everywhere. I was late for everything and use a hell of a lot more of public transport.”
She also enlisted the help of psychotherapist Fiona Austin who treated her with hypnotherapy. “She gave me a toolkit which I tried with varying levels of success, depending on how much coffee I had imbibed and how jumpy I felt. I would chew gum to help with stress (hence its creation for the American GIs in the Second World War), put a talisman in the car that made me feel safe – like a childhood toy. She told me to make myself smile even if I didn’t feel it. To that end, I’d bring my dog with me (dogs just make everything in life better, obviously). And I had to remember to breathe.” (Try these breathing techniques).
Now 57, she has sold her car and hasn’t driven in years. “I’m delightedly happy with hopping on public transport.”
What explains menopausal fear of driving?
“It’s a combination of anxiety, which we know is heightened in menopause, its [menopause’s] impact on the nervous system, which affects balance and speed perception, and increased awareness of our mortality,” says Dr Andrew. Because we are more risk averse, we doubt ourselves more and our speed perception is compromised, our “essential skills for driving are negatively impacted.”
Anxiety in general is something that can appear in perimenopause and menopause in many ways. Loss of confidence in everyday situations can come on very suddenly, confirms Eileen Durward, menopause expert at herbal supplements company A. Vogel. “It may be in your workplace, if you give a lot of presentations or if you give speeches, you might find that suddenly, you just don’t want to do it anymore… and if nervousness creeps in as well, that can actually trigger a hot flush or a sweat.”
Having a hot flush while driving is not unusual for that reason.
She adds: “Driving is actually a really common one. It’s amazing how many women say to me that suddenly the thought of having to drive through traffic just sends them into a panic.” As adrenaline spikes, the mind starts to take over and make ordinary situations fearful, she explains.
Durward says the most important thing remember is to drink water. "Dehydration will make your adrenals even more jumpy, even more nervous. If you’re getting hot flushes and sweats as well, then, it’s doubly important to keep your water intake up.”
“It’s good to know there’s an actual medical reason for it – believe me, you think you’re going mad,” says Druker.
But is there anything you can do to improve the situation? Thankfully, the answer is yes.
How to tackle fear of driving in menopause by Dr Liz Andrew of Menopause Care.
1. Don’t be afraid to medicate
“HRT can help - there is good evidence that it aids in settling anxiety at this time. Non-hormonal medications such as beta blockers and some SSRI antidepressants for those who can’t or won’t take HRT can offer support as well.”
2. Rely on mindfulness practices
“Breathwork, meditation and yoga nidra can really help settle the nervous system, while reducing or cutting out alcohol and devoting more time to exercise are other proven ways to get on top of your nerves.” Try Ally Boothroyd’s Yoga Nidra For Anxiety (not while driving of course!).
3. Don’t avoid driving altogether
“It’s not uncommon for women to start to avoid driving altogether or only taking known routes. But while this feels logical, it’s a tactic best avoided. Driving is a high-level skill and maintaining it should increase your longer-term confidence. Instead, try sharing your fears with a friend: just knowing you aren't alone in these feelings can be a great help.”
Follow Jane @janedruker