Sandy: Mindfulness in the Car

I have bipolar, anxiety and social phobia.

I was first placed in a psychiatric ward when I was 14 but was not officially diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder until I was 35. I've become more socially phobic over the last eight years and have been unable to leave the house by myself without it being planned in advance, with all details fixed.

As I've withdrawn more and more, driving has become particularly difficult for me. I have always been frightened of breaking down in the car; irritating people and having to deal with strangers on the road. If I had to go out the doctors, I would have to start planning the trip the night before and would instantly start worrying about the drive. Thoughts like “would I be safe?” Would I kill someone? Would I be killed?” would ruminate in my mind. The whole driving experience made me feel very anxious.

One day, whilst watching television, an advert came on. The advert was about using our time in the car to be mindful. It suggested that our time in the car is a time to choose how we feel and act - unlike in life which can be exhausting and frantic – and asked that we use car time to relax and recharge. I realised that I tended to drive desperately from destination to destination riddled with fear and anxiety. So I decided to give the mindful practice a try.

One of the things that worried me whilst driving was the sound of the engine – I would always assume that the noises it made were a sign that something was ‘wrong' with it. So the first thing I did, was find some nice low key music to cover the sounds coming from the engine. With the music playing in the background, I practice deep breathing while driving in the car. I focus on where I am now, instead of where my journey needs to take me. When I use this mindful practice, I am no longer concerned by other drivers so if they make an error or are rude to me, it is not a problem. By mindfully watching the traffic, I've started to see all of the patterns that the cars make and the different kinds of people that pass me by.

Like everyone, I do have my bad days but most of the time I can do this without much difficulty. I try to go out, even if just to the local shops, five times a week. That might not sound like a lot to the average person, but six years ago I could go for a month without leaving the house. Practising mindfulness in the car has really transformed my driving. I turn up on time to my appointments and arrive in the best possible mind frame to do whatever it is that I have to do. By being aware of the now, I see so much more on my journeys and can enjoy the scenery: both natural and manmade. My car is now like my sanctuary and driving has become a delight – both things I didn't believe would be possible.

If you want to try mindfulness (and I think everybody should) then start out by finding a small window in your life to practice it. Pick a time, such as in your car, and try to open yourself to all that is going on around you, without letting it distract or worry you. I am now trying to be mindful on the computer, while studying or engaging in social media. Be calm and in the now. Appreciate the place you are in, in that moment, and keep doing that.

Sandy, 52, is a Justice of the Peace volunteer and lives in Western Australia.