Backseat Driving

Some passengers are far more user friendly than others…

Backseat driving is a great topic because it is a commonplace example that illustrates how excessive anxiety strongly pulls for behaviors that lessen the anxiety in the moment but perpetuate the anxiety problem in the long run! This post is a nudge lengthy. That said, if you have a backseat driver in your life or are just interested in what is going on under the hood it is worth a read (never hurts to know about such things…). Enjoy!

A minute inside your backseat driver’s head

Your driving makes me anxious. My anxiety fits the situation (i.e. you are a poor driver, and we are at significant risk when you are behind the wheel). If you appreciated just how poor driver you are -which you clearly don’t- you too would be appropriately anxious. Because you are a poor driver, you need my assistance (i.e. if you drove better, I wouldn’t need to “help” you). You resent my assistance, but this is really because you -like all poor drivers- fail to appreciate that you are, in fact, a poor driver… My assistance has prevented many a catastrophe -all of this is lost on you because all poor drivers naively fail to recognize that they were ever in harm’s way.

So what is really going on?

Anxiety comes from an older part of our brain that we will call the midbrain (not entirely accurate, but it has the virtue of keeping things simple). Well, when it comes to anxiety, the midbrain does several things: it determines whether or not we are in immediate danger; it triggers our body’s alarm system when it concludes that we are in danger; it turns off our body’s alarm system once it concludes we are out of danger; and it subsequently determines whether the danger response was a real alarm or a false alarm.

Imagine walking into your bathroom tonight and seeing (out of the corner of your eye) a hulking shadowy figure lurking behind the door! Your midbrain instantly puts you in fight or flight mode (you are now pumped full of adrenelin, your blood pressure just shot up, and you have just spun around and crouched a bit in the process. Well, when you spin around, you see that your home invader is, in fact, your bath robe and shower cap hanging off of the door. Your midbrain instantly concludes that you are not in danger and the alarm was a false alarm -and you can literally feel your body calm down and come out of ready for action mode.

Well, all that is good to know, but how does this work with my backseat driver?

When you are chauffeuring your anxious passenger about, his midbrain concludes that he is unsafe and jazzes up his body. When you arrive at your destination, his midbrain concludes that he is out of danger, and his body calms down. Your backseat driver interprets this phenomenon as “proof” that he was in real danger during the drive. That said, there is more to the story.

Imagine pointing out the following to you backseat driver: I have been driving for over twenty years -the first fifteen of which were before we ever met; I have never been in or caused an accident as a driver; I have never been ticketed for a moving violation; and I currently drive without you as a passenger approximately 90% of the time.

Armed with this information, why doesn’t my backseat driver conclude that his body’s alarms are false alarms?

The answer lies at the root of all self-perpetuating anxiety that involves our body’s alarm system. What we think and do after our body’s alarm goes off plays a crucial role in our midbrain determining whether the alarm was real or false.

Well, I gave my backseat driver all that “I have a safe driving record” info -why didn’t that do the trick?

On the face of it, that should solve the problem -or at least reduce the problem a fair bit. Of course, we all know it absolutely doesn’t! As to why, this is because our midbrain is essentially the same brain that all mammals have, and this part of the brain only learns through experience.

Imagine adopting a rescue dog who had clearly been mistreated by his previous owner. Through repeated exposure to you being kind, affectionate, and gentle, your new dog will soon learn that he is safe and in good hands. Reading a well prepared statement that eloquently explains that you are a dog’s dream come true will not achieve this result…

Okay, I get it. You can’t talk the midbrain into feeling safe -it can only learn through experience. Well, I’ve been driving my backseat driver around for years without mishap! Why hasn’t his midbrain concluded that he is reasonably safe when I am behind the wheel?

This is because your backseat driver engages in behaviors that prevent his midbrain from learning that he is safe. Remember that rescue dog you adopted? Imagine he is an outdoor dog and you live on a ranch. Sure you built him a doghouse and you put food out every day, but whenever you approach your dog -he runs off (classic safety behavior). As long as your new dog is in run away mode, he will never be in a position to learn (through experience) that he is safe around you.

Well, my backseat driver doesn’t run away -what safety behaviors does he engage in that prevent his midbrain from learning he is reasonably safe when I am driving?

Before getting into specifics, let’s take a quick look at the adaptive behaviors all of us mammals engage in when we are in immediate or potentially real physical danger. Avoidance: running away, steering clear of, jumping out of the way, etc. Tensing up: tightened bodies move far quicker than relaxed bodies. Hyper-vigilance: sense a predator is near -lift your head, flare your nostrils (deer, horses, etc.), listen up, and intensely scan the environment. Controlling: you would definitely try to control your toddler’s behavior were she about to wander out into the street. Freezing up: trying to get someone’s attention? -wave your arms -trying to not be seen? -remain stock still. Slowing down: it would take most of us a lot longer to walk the length of a balance beam that was ten feet off of the ground than if that beam were sitting on the floor.

So all those behaviors are highly adaptive, and (because of that) they are hard wired into our midbrain. These behaviors are designed to initiate rapidly without thought –you hear screeching breaks as you step off the curb -your midbrain makes you instantly jump back -it does not “ponder the situation”.

So what “real danger” behaviors are at play with backseat drivers?

They center on hyper-vigilance and controlling. As for hyper-vigilance, your Nervous Nelly is constantly scanning the driving environment and is closely monitoring your driving –he is not buried in his cell phone or otherwise distracted. As for controlling, it’s as simple as –when you step on the peddle I start to meddle… and just so you know, these two safety behaviors work in concert. As in, I can tell you to “slow down -someone is in your blind spot” because I am actively observing your fellow drivers.

So how do these safety behaviors prevent my anxious passenger from learning that he is reasonably safe?

At the end of your drive you have both arrived at your destination unharmed. This “successful” outcome results in your backseat driver concluding that his safety behaviors (being hyper-vigilant and controlling) were instrumental in achieving this positive result. Remember -the things we think and do after our body’s alarm has gone off play a crucial role in our midbrain determining whether our alarm was real or false.

Put it all together, and this is why you don’t know any former backseat drivers! Is there any way off of this miserable ride? Absolutely! At Thrive Psychology Consultants, we specialize in treating all manner of self-perpetuating anxieties! To learn more about Thrive and our approach to working with clients, link to

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