If the thought of taking your driving test fills you with dread and you are anxious about being overcome with nerves, there are some proven techniques you can use to calm yourself. Give yourself a better chance of passing your practical driving test by following one or more of these seven tips.
Duplicate the test environment as closely as possible
When you learn a skill your brain creates associations and muscle memory that allows it to more easily function under stress. This is why you see athletes performing little routines before they compete. They are creating an environment for themselves that has some consistency, even though they might be in a completely unfamiliar stadium.
While you are still a novice driver, the same is happening. Your brain is learning how to process all this new information and sensations. To make it easier, create an environment that is as similar to the test environment that you can. You should be using the car that you will take the test in, driving routes that you expect the test to take, and putting yourself in situations that you might expect on your test.
You should avoid listening to music (there won’t be music on your test), and you should familiarise yourself with everything on the vehicle that you will need to use and make sure you can use it smoothly and without hesitation every time. This includes the indicators, windscreen wipers, windscreen washers, lights, hazard warning lights, handbrake, air conditioning and horn.
Preparation is key
Get as much practice as you can in as many situations as you can with an experienced instructor. The more experience you have the less likelihood there is of a situation happening that you haven’t had to deal with before. You’re not expected to achieve mastery in your time learning how to drive, but you do have to demonstrate that you are a confident driver that knows the road rules and can drive within them without putting other drivers at risk.
You should try to cover off the following trickier driving situations in both daytime and night-time when you are practising, and preferably with an instructor rather than a friend or relative so that you can learn the best ways to position your car and what speeds are appropriate.:
- Heavy rain
- Frost (if you live in an area where this is likely to happen)
- Heavy city traffic, e.g. rush hour, with roundabouts and larger junctions
- Highway speeds, particularly merging and changing lanes in heavy traffic on a motorway (build up to this one as it can take some nerve the first time you try)
- Unsealed roads
- Narrow country roads
- Parking in different scenarios on different streets (start by practising in an empty car park before you try this for real)
Plus, you might want to try driving in the dry with sun strike if you live in an area where this is going to be a problem for you. For example, if you live in West Auckland and you commute to the city (eastwards) in the morning and back home (westwards) at night you will get two bouts of sun strike in one day at certain times of the year. If you cover off those main areas you will have a broad range of experience that will prepare you for most eventualities.
Acknowledge your body’s natural reaction
You feel nerves because there is something at stake: you are taking a test with a person examining who has years and years of driving experience and you are being judged on your driving experience when you’ve had relatively little practice. Nerves are a totally natural response to this situation. Worrying about your nerves, though, will cause anxiety, and that is not natural.
Acknowledging that you might feel nervous is an excellent technique to help dismiss those nerves – it’s OK to feel nervous because that puts you in a slightly heightened sense of awareness, and that is actually OK on your test.
While it’s OK to acknowledge your nerves, it’s not OK to keep saying to yourself that you are nervous because that creates a situation where your brain starts to believe you are. It is much better to use a technique that successful people use, and that is affirmations.
Affirmations are positive self-talk. The concept is simple and it’s similar to brain-washing. If you repeat something to yourself over and over again then you will start to believe it, as long as you don’t have a stronger belief that is blocking it. You always have to say affirmations in the positive (for example, “I am relaxed”, not “I am not worried”) because your subconscious mind does not understand negative or positive. If you mention ‘worried’ in your affirmation, whether negative or positive, you’re just affirming to your brain about your worry.
Affirmations have been used for centuries. They differ slightly from prayers because you are not asking an external force to influence you, i.e. you’re not asking your god to let you pass the test. Affirmations recognise that you have the power to pass the test yourself. Of course, if you believe that praying will help, then do that too.
Access your parasympathetic nervous system
This is a fancy way of saying ‘use a deep breathing technique’. Deep breathing is breathing into your stomach and making sure you expel all the air. In times when you are nervous, you are likely to take shallow breaths into your chest rather than deeper breaths into your stomach. This leads to less oxygen transfer to your blood and that affects all kinds of things like the nutrient delivery to your tissues.
A very simple technique to help relax you is to take a long slow breath in, expanding your stomach, then take a long slow breath out making sure you activate your stomach muscles to push all the air out of your lungs. Do this for a couple of minutes with each in-out cycle taking around ten seconds.
There are plenty of texts and videos about this online as it is practised in some yoga.
A naturopath or a natural-health-minded doctor can help recommend you herbal, natural products that you can use that won’t affect your alertness.
Taking a short walk before your test can take your mind off it and keep you calm, as opposed to sitting down and thinking it over and over. It also gets the blood flowing and will help with breathing. Try using the deep breathing exercises mentioned above.
On the day of the test
Make a list of the things you need to take (licence, sunglasses, etc). Do some exercise before the test to release any stress or tension (but not too much). Get there early, then try to distract yourself with something like some music or a movie on your phone (don’t miss your test appointment, though – set an alarm if you need to). Turn your phone off before you get in the car. Smile and be confident towards the examiner.