Fear of Driving Through Tunnels and How to Overcome It

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Driving is an exhilarating activity. It not only gets you to places but it also relaxes you and helps you put off your thoughts for a while and focus on the road alone. But someone who enjoys driving is not always a fan of driving through all the places in the world. Drivers experience many phobias related to driving alone, through difficult terrains, or bridges or narrow streets. One of those driving-related phobias is the fear of driving through tunnels.

Many drivers around the world report in many studies that driving through tunnels gives them anxiety. This phobia can have its roots in many road-related incidences that the person may have had in their entire driving experience, but psychologically speaking, it’s the tunnel phobia that causes massive discomfort or anxiety to drivers. This article is going to talk about the fear of driving through tunnels and how to overcome it.

What is a Tunnel Anxiety?

You are driving on an uncrowded highway under the clear blue sky. Everything around you seems to sync with your calm mood. With your eyes fixed on the road, your mind is relaxed and your body sunk comfortably in your seat. Hands placed lightly on the wheels, legs unseparated from the pedal, you are enjoying the drive. Suddenly, your eyes catch sight of the edge of the tunnel far ahead on the road. Your heart starts to pound, your hands begin to tremble on the wheel and your foot seems to break up with the pedal. As the distance between the tunnel and you shorten, you experience shortness of breath and stiffness in your muscles.

These feelings are a common occurrence in people who suffer from tunnel anxiety or tunnel phobia. It’s a popular term for feeling anxious at the thought of driving through tunnels and avoiding tunnels during your drive. A relatively large number of motorists report feeling uneasy and uncomfortable when they drive through long tunnels, especially tunnels underwater. While the thought of driving through tunnels underwater can simply be attributed to a person’s fear of drowning, it’s still an irrational fear that can create a severe level of discomfort for the motorist to continue to their destination.

For every person feeling apprehensive to drive through a tunnel, there are some symptoms to look for that can rule out any other form of phobia such a person may be a victim of. Tunnel phobia has a few symptoms that manifest themselves in the driver or motorist when they approach a tunnel or while they are driving through a tunnel.

But before delving into the symptoms of tunnel phobia, it’s important to understand what phobia is.

What is a Phobia?

Imagine stepping into a crowded elevator. As soon as the door closes, you begin to sweat, and it becomes increasingly impossible for you to breathe. You feel thumping in your chest and your mouth slowly becomes dry. You look around and feel that the walls of the elevator are closing in on you along with the people standing in it. You feel the sudden, unavoidable urge to run as the panic sets in. By the time the elevator door opens, you are feeling tired, your legs are shaky, and your head is dizzy. The next time you have to go to a floor high up in the building, you’d rather take stairs than step into an elevator.

The above-mentioned situation is a classic example of intense fear that triggers an anxious response in the body as described above. Typically, a phobia is an excessive fear reaction that causes a person to feel a deep sense of dreams when they encounter the source of fear.

In the given case, such a source is tunnels and driving through them fills the driver with a deep sense of dread and can be severely disabling for the person suffering from it.

Symptoms of Tunnel Anxiety or the Fear of driving through Tunnels

It may be that you are fine on the road one moment and then start feeling something that you have no clue about. It’s either an illness you may be suffering from but have no idea about, or the anxiety one feels on the road. While all road-related anxieties have their roots in the generalized fear of being harmed by the vehicles outside, for some drivers, it’s tunnels and bridges that cause them to react this way. If your anxiety reaches such a level that you start to experience panic attacks when driving, it’s putting you in an extremely risky situation when you can get hurt. If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms while driving, it’s time to take action and get the problem fixed.


You are fine on the road as long as it’s not a highway or motorway. The instant you take a turn towards a highway that leads up to a tunnel, you start feeling anxious.

Loss of concentration

You are a focused driver, generally, but suddenly you feel that your mind is drifting and you are unable to concentrate on the road ahead and start to lose confidence in your ability to control the vehicle. You feel flustered and uneasy and have this overwhelming thought that if you continue to drive, you’ll die.

Claustrophobia and Panic

When you are driving through long tunnels, you feel like the walls around you are closing in on you and will ultimately collapse. You become panicked and accelerate the car to get out of the tunnel as soon as you can.

Physical Symptoms

  • When driving through a tunnel, you start to sweat everywhere in your body or certain places in your body.
  • Your hands may tremble, or you experience hot flashes in your body.
  • You might feel the sudden urge to draw in the fresh air, or your heartbeat increases at a rapid rate.
  • You might feel a tightness in your chest, or a nauseating feeling in your throat. Hyperventilation or lightheadedness is also one of the main physical symptoms.

Causes of Tunnel Anxiety

Driving anxiety is not different from panic disorder or agoraphobia. People who experience panic believe that they are in a setting where they’ll most likely lose control of themselves and either do something harmful to themselves or others. Similarly, when some people experience the same sort of panic while driving, they are most likely thinking that they’ll do something embarrassing or dangerous like driving off a bridge or ramming into a crowd. The constant hammering of these thoughts in their head drives their mind into a momentary collapse where they feel as if they can’t control their actions. This is the typical form of agoraphobia where people fear being trapped or unable to escape a situation.

However, people experiencing tunnel anxiety might not necessarily experience agoraphobia. They may be fine in crowded subways and even in elevators. But as soon as they are in a car and driving through a tunnel, their fears kick in and all the symptoms begin to appear. This is when the person experiences tunnel anxiety can put themselves in harm’s way.

Similar to driving anxiety, most people with the fear of driving through tunnels have either been in a car crash or experienced some sort of trauma on the road. But in actuality, the fear of driving through tunnels is a manifestation of claustrophobia. And very little is known about what causes claustrophobia.

However, similar to all phobias, environmental factors play a significant part in causing claustrophobia. Most people who suffer from the fear of tunnel anxiety develop claustrophobia in their teenage years or childhood.

Apart from environmental factors, claustrophobia can also be related to the dysfunction of the amygdala, the part of the brain that manages fear and controls how we process it. But most commonly, this phobia can be a cause of the following traumatic events.

  • You may have been stuck in an elevator for longer than the average time a person remains stuck in an elevator, and you feared for your life as a result.
  • You were stuck in a crowded space for an extended period of time and felt breathless or feared that you’d not make it out alive.
  • You experienced turbulence during a long flight.
  • You were punished by your parents or teachers by getting locked up in a small place, like a cupboard, storeroom or bathroom.
  • You were stuck in a tight space like a closet, by accident.
  • You were born in a family where other family members were also claustrophobic.

If you have experienced any of the events in your past, you are most likely to develop tunnel anxiety or fear of driving through tunnels than any other person. However, this fear can be easily cured using various methods and procedures.

How to Overcome It the Fear of Driving Through Tunnels

Driving through tunnels is not a big deal for most people. They don’t feel anything out of ordinary with themselves while driving through tunnels. But some people feel this irrational fear as if the walls of the tunnel are closing in on them when driving through it. They suffer from the fear of going through tunnels and in response to their fear, they avoid tunnels most of the time. But since tunnel phobia is directly related to claustrophobia, the means to overcome it are the same ways that are adopted to defeat claustrophobia.

Systematic Desensitization

As the name suggests itself, systematic desensitization is the technique of controlling one’s response to what they fear. It is considered to be one of the most effective treatments for phobia. In this method, your therapist will ask you to relax physically. He or she will teach a few techniques to reach that level of physical relaxation. Next, they will help you develop an anxiety ranking that will categorize the level of fear. For instance, you may be comfortable in cars, but not so much in trains, buses or airplanes. One by one, the therapist will expose you to the trigger that causes your fear, starting with the least-feared trigger. They will teach you to substitute your anxiety with a relaxation response. The process takes time and progress slowly, so your mind retains the exercise and replaces triggers with relaxation responses permanently.


Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is typically used to treat PTSD. But when applied to treat tunnel anxiety, it has also shown successful results. EMDR is usually used to treat phobias that originated from a traumatic event. This type of process helps you manage negative thoughts and process emotions associated with a traumatic event. The therapist helps you to focus on your internal experience associated with the event while keeping track of your external stimulus.


Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy is also used to treat tunnel anxiety. This therapy is focused on helping a person identify the thoughts that follow their response to fear. With this therapy, you are able to alienate realistic thoughts with irrational thoughts. Once the unreasonable thoughts are isolated, the therapist trains you to couple you positive, realistic thoughts with the right actions. In the case of tunnel anxiety, the therapist may ask you to take physical action, such as staying in a stationary car in the tunnel and then asses how safe it is. The therapy reinforces irrational thoughts with realistic thoughts to help you overcome your phobia.

Physiological treatment

Not every fear response is a result of some traumatic event in the past or any other psychological cause. Some physical causes can be a result of a physiological problem in your body. People with severe phobic reactions can make use of anxiety medication in addition to therapy. This helps them overcome the physiological symptoms of tunnel phobia when driving through tunnels and lessens the risk of accidents as a result of those symptoms.


The next time you are driving through a tunnel and your heart begins to pound hard, draw a deep breath and exhale from your mouth. Keep doing it until your body relaxes and your mind registers that there is no more reason for fear. Try meditating for just 5 minutes before your drive, to keep your body relaxed and mind more focused on the road. People suffering from tunnel anxiety have tried meditation for 5 minutes daily and seen significant improvement in their fear response while driving through the tunnel.


Phobias are unpleasant. They make you do things you never imagined yourself doing. They take the pleasure out of simple things and sometimes put you at risk of serious injury or accidents. You may feel like if you just ignore or avoid the source of your fear all your life, you may never have to feel anxious or fearful. The truth is, you are only exposing yourself to more phobias and irrational fears.

The best way to tackle phobias is to face them head-on and accept that it is what it is. And then seek the help of a professional who can teach you how to overcome it. Fear of driving through tunnels is the same as any other phobia. If you think that it is meddling with your general comfort and mental peace, it’s time for you to seek help and nip it in the bud. So the next time you are driving through a tunnel and feel this way, take a deep breath and tell yourself that you’ll be fine and immediately seek help after.