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Dealing with Stress whilst Driving

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of guiding a professional NHS therapist through her driving test. What I got from her, that I would like to share with you is a series of stress-busting strategies that I use for myself and my pupils.


The first group of these strategies are physical. Stress shows itself in our bodies so if we can get our bodies to relax this will help to reduce stress.


The first of these is chewing gum. It goes along the lines of if you are chewing gum your brain thinks that your body is eating. It’s safe to eat, we do it every day, therefore your body can relax a bit more. If you look at some of the most highly stressed people in the world, premiership football managers. You will quite often see them chewing gum.


If you were to google the benefits of chewing gum you will be pleasantly surprised by the sheer number of benefits. The act of chewing can increase oxygen to the brain, which increases alertness and memory.  A 2008 study led by Australian researcher Andrew Scholey, a professor of behavioural and brain sciences at Swinburne University in Melbourne, showed that chewing gum reduced the stress hormone Cortisol in participants. They reported feeling less stressed and more alert.

As a driving instructor, I always have some gum in my training vehicle and within easy reach of my pupil. I always tell my pupils it’s there for them and to help themselves. I make a point of the fact they do not need to ask and I offer if I think they could do with reminding of it. So, if you ever feel stressed when you’re driving, reach for the gum!

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Dealing with Stress Whilst Driving: Shaking

You may or may not be surprised at the number of people who report suffering from stress and anxiety whilst driving but there are ways to deal with it. Last week we talked about chewing gum but maybe you’re not a gum kinda person so why not try, shaking?

No, we don’t mean trembling with fear or drinking a shake (although who knows, a milkshake could help?!) What we’re talking about is the act of loosening the body. We are all familiar with how our bodies become tense and we stiffen up when we’re under stress. So, how can shaking help?

What the act of shaking should do is loosen our muscles, ligaments and joints. If we are loose we are relaxed. The process of doing this will increase oxygen to the brain which in turn, will promote alertness and memory. An NHS therapist we taught used to tell us that the therapists where she worked often came back into the staff room shaking. She implied this was as a stress relief strategy, rather than anything they had learnt from the client during therapy.

The way we have used this is sometimes we get the pupil when pulled over just to shake the stress off in the car. If you were ever at one of the local test centres and saw some idiot with his pupil doing star jumps that was most probably one of us.

One of our pupils was a teacher and knew about these types of stress-busting techniques so we went for it. Another pupil of ours when stopped at the traffic lights would bounce her legs up and down. The dance she called it. For both of them, it worked.

So next time you’re feeling stressed or anxious when driving, pull over and have a shake.

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Dealing with Stress Whilst Driving: Breathing

We all do it and if we don’t…well you know. But breathing is another technique that could help calm you down. So to be more specific it’s diaphragmatic breathing or what’s more commonly known as belly breathing that can help. This is a deep breathing technique that promotes relaxation and hence reduces stress. According to the University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center, “Diaphragmatic breathing allows one to take normal breaths while maximizing the amount of oxygen that goes into the bloodstream. It is a way of interrupting the ‘Fight or Flight’ response and triggering the body’s normal relaxation response.”


So what’s the technique? When pulled over (safely) breath in through your nose for a count of three deep down into your stomach. Hold for a count of one, then out from your mouth for a count of four, emptying your stomach of the breath. As instructors, we quite often tell our pupils “in with the calm and out with the stress”. A cycle of three or four of these deep breaths will quite often a calm state.


So next time, if the gum and the shaking haven’t helped. Try belly breathing. But remember, pull over and stop. Don’t try doing it on the move!

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Dealing with Stress Whilst Driving: Laughing

Besides the physical techniques we have spoken about in our previous blog posts there are others that good instructors will use instinctively. The first of these is laughter. A few good jokes can make the driving experience more pleasant and less stressful. While driving could be a matter of life and death the process of learning will not be helped by making it so serious. To laugh together at a mistake and then to ask how can we improve on that mistake next time will do so much more to aid learning than any criticism.

The process of laughing is good for us. It increases our oxygen levels which in turn leads to greater alertness and memory retention. Some jokes may not get a belly laugh but a lightened mood helps reduce stress whilst driving. One of our young pupils summed driving instructor Liam up brilliantly. She took great delight in telling Liam that his jokes were as bad as her dads and that he told the same ones each week. Needless to say, that didn’t stop him.

Occasionally, as instructors, we come across pupils who don’t respond well humour and this is okay. It’s our job to respond to these pupils in a manner that’s appropriate for them. If they’re stressed and don’t respond to humour, we suggest belly breathing, shaking or chewing. We find what helps them and what will help them in their driving career.

Whether you’re learning now or you passed your test 30 years ago. How you learn to drive and the techniques you pick up on those lessons mould you as a driver. We encourage our students to find stress-busting techniques that work for them and will continue working for them.

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Dealing with Stress Whilst Driving: Coaching

Lastly, we’re going to be talking about coaching, we are driving instructors after all. So why does coaching help reduce stress?

Any good instructor knows and practices a peer to peer style of driver development. Instructors are not lording over their pupil but working with them. Instructing in its extreme can become very negative. The instructor can be frustrated by a pupils inability to comprehend the instructor’s ‘words of wisdom’. Think back to when an authority figure was telling you to do something and you did not understand. That stress of dealing with an authority figure when things were not going well made you feel worse. But when one of your mates took you to one side and explained it all, it became clearer.

The instructional style is fault-based and looks back at what has been done. Coaching looks forward to what will be done. The difference here is that we go with the positive rather than dwell on the negative. This creates a more positive environment for the pupil. If a pupil begins with a positive environment they are more likely to continue down that road, even when they’ve passed their test. GROW models come to mind. The GROW model is a simple method for goal setting and problem-solving. Obviously, certain things need to be done but pupils should be aware of these things and will work with you to achieving the goal.

With coaching, there should be an awareness and a sense of responsibility from the pupil. A driving instructors job, for which they are being paid is to provide the knowledge, skills and a safe environment for this to happen. Note the last bit: a safe environment. It is an instructor’s job to create this environment and the pupil’s to be receptive to this.

When we feel safe, when we have the right knowledge and when we have or are developing the necessary skills with the right kind of support we feel happy that we were achieving something. This is certainly less stressful than struggling with something your not sure about or trying to do something you’re uncertain of.

Learning to drive and even driving can be stressful and we wanted to look at some ways it can be made less so. We are grateful to our NHS Therapist ex-pupil who shared her techniques with us and allowed us to pass on these tips to our other pupils.

In turn, we hope that some of the techniques we have spoken about in the past few weeks have helped you or someone you know. Yes, driving is stressful and in turn, can create anxiety but you are in control.

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How to beat driving test stress.

What follow below are some tips for reducing your stress levels on your driving test.

Before the test.

1. Make sure you are ready.

This means you can drive without prompting from your instructor and that you feel you will be able to cope on your own. This is the most important tip.

A driving test date can be changed 3 working days before the test up to 6 times.

2. Know what to expect on the day.

Check out GOV.UK The car practical driving test.

3. Have a realistic mock test with your instructor.

The patient friendly driving instructor can be very different from a formal examiner.

4. Don’t tell everyone.

The less people that know, the less the pressure on you.

5. Make sure you have your licence and theory test pass letter ready before the test.

No last minute panics looking for your documents.

6. Make sure you are physically fit.

Being ill, rundown, tired or hung over from the night before are not good for ordinary driving, could be illegal. And not were you want to be for a driving test.

7. Make sure you are mentally fit.

Closely tied in with your physical fitness, you need to make sure you are in the right frame of mind.

8. Get a good nights sleep.

To be rested in body and mind will give you a better chance.

Once again remember a driving test date can be changed 3 working days before the test. This can be done a total of up to 6 times. To take a test that you are not ready for is a waste of time, money and effort. Make sure you are there to pass.

On the day of the test.

1. Be up in good time and washed and brushed ready.

Be rested and in comfortable clothes with your driving shoes.

2. Be fed and watered in good time.

If it is good enough for horses it is good enough for you. It is important to be properly hydrated, so take a small bottle of water with you.

3. Make sure you have your licence and theory test pass letter with you.

Have this ready the night before and keep in a safe place.

At the test centre.

1. Make sure you are there in good time.

Rushing is not good for your stress levels.

2. Chew gum.

It is well documented that this is an effective way of reducing stress. Watch the athletes before a race.

3. Shake off stress.

Loosening up helps. As with chewing gum look at athletes before a competition. People shake after a stressful experience. You too can shake off stress just like an athlete.

4. Breath deeply.

In through your nose and down to your stomach, hold, then breath out through your mouth longer than you breathed in empting your stomach.

On your test.

1. Do your normal drive.

You have been trained to drive safely. Do what you have been trained to do.

2. Safe not perfect.

Remember that nobody is perfect, but you can be safe.

3. Don’t get annoyed.

Forgive yourself if it is not perfect. Lots of people will tell you they made a mistake on test, thought they had failed, drove normally after that and went on to pass.

4. Think about what you should be doing.

Always go with the positive. Use the system MSPSL. If you do not know what MSPSL is you are not ready.

5. Use your own coping strategies.

These are personal to you and could be anything.

Externally focused on the examiner.

You might imagine them naked or sat on the toilet. You could see them in your minds eye wearing a nappy with a big dummy in their mouth.

Internally focusing on yourself.

You could pretend you have already passed and you are taking your dad home. Possibly you could imagine you are the one examining the examiner.

The list is endless, you choose what is best or works for you.

At the end of the day the biggest tip is to make sure you are ready to pass. This means you can drive safely with a little bit of confidence without any prompting from your instructor.

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