Posted On Feb 21, 2024 |

It isn't just in your head...


One morning I decided I would take a faster road to get to my destination. I took the uphill slip road onto the Shoreham fly over in West Sussex, it was rush hour and there isn’t much of a slip to slip into. As I drove upwards it actually looked to my brain as though I had to drive straight into a stream of high speed traffic. Now I’m actually a good driver and a man in a van flashed his lights so that I could join the stream, which I did with a smooth manoeuvre. There was just one problem, my entire body had begun trembling from the moment my chimp brain warned me that driving straight into the cars would probably result in instant death or at least severe mangling! It was literally a feeling that took over my body from the inside out and I had to focus on keeping my shaking right leg still enough, so that my foot could stay on the accelerator! My head was calm but it seemed to take forever to rebalance myself physically.

I have driving anxiety, totally fine when I know where I am, not so good in new places, especially when trying to navigate huge new roundabouts. When I tell people I have driving anxiety, they just say things like “plan your route” or “you’re missing out on so many experiences” Yes, I bloody know that thank you very much! And this is the misconception about anxiety. It isn’t about lacking the cognitive skill to overcome fear, the morning I drove straight into a conga of cars, I calmed my body down with some superb self counselling. What people do not understand is that when you feel fear your body releases an amazing cocktail of chemicals, and that actual biological and very physical reaction is what we are trying to overcome, and we’re trying to do it fast, especially in a car where there is a huge issue of safety for ourselves and those around us.

So basically, anxiety is a rush of chemicals around the body including adrenaline. Now think about your dog for a minute. Humans are able to understand and process what is happening, even if it scares us we still know, our dogs however do not have the same cognitive skills that we do. When your dog is facing their fear it would be easy to feel frustrated with them, especially as their anxiety is likely to be blamed on the trigger, meaning ‘I’ll bark and snarl at the trigger, make it go away!’

What your dog needs in this situation is space, distance and the chance to rebalance, they are probably not even considering your presence when they panic (go over their threshold). They have to wait for all of those crappy chemicals to disperse from their body and that can take time, they may even be a bit discombobulated for a couple of days. So when your dog is acting aggressively or even just being hyperactive or pulling frantically at the end of the lead, be patient with them.

And if a friend tells you they struggle with anxiety don’t tell them to calm down or let it go, they’ve already thought of that and will want to swear at you. People and their dogs do not enjoy being anxious, they need support, positive experience, learned skills and possibly a big dose of propranolol.