How mindfulness can help you to become a better driver

Portrait photo of San Harper, approved driving instructor.

Published 9 June 2021
Last updated 30 November 2021

In this blog post, we’ll hear from San Harper, a Gloucester-based approved driving instructor who’s been using mindfulness practices with her pupils.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is an awareness that arises through paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.

Scientific research has shown that regular mindfulness meditation practice changes the structure of your brain when you practise for 8 weeks or longer. It shrinks the fear centre of the brain (the amygdala), This is known as neuroplasticity. That change can help reduce anxiety and suffering. Mindfulness can also improve concentration, performance, and overall wellbeing.

It’s not a quick fix, but if you integrate it into your life, it can be very transformative - in your work, relationships and friendships.

Can you tell us how you discovered mindfulness?

A few years ago, I developed anxiety. I was finding work and life very stressful. I was also suffering with chronic pain in my neck, shoulders and back.

So I went looking for answers and I discovered mindfulness. I did an 8-week MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) course. It’s a world-renowned course developed by Jon Kabat-Zin, the person who helped bring mindfulness to the West.

I used to have a clenched jaw and painful muscle tension and often relied on painkillers. Now, through practicing mindfulness, I have the tools to manage it. I thought, “Wow, this is amazing – this stuff’s really something”.

You’ve introduced mindfulness into your teaching as an ADI. Please tell me what you do.

I’d been using Mindfulness to manage my own anxiety. So I thought a Mindfulness Based Approach could help my pupils who are anxious about the lesson or an upcoming test. Even those who aren’t particularly anxious have found that it helps with emotional intelligence and understanding other people’s behaviour – which is essential when you’re driving.

So now it’s the first thing we do after a pupil gets in the car. I do a 2-minute practice with them, just coming out of the head into the body. I get them to feel their feet on the floor, noticing how they’re sitting in their seat. It allows them an opportunity to settle before we start the car.

A lovely starting point

Often, a pupil will get in the car, and they’ll be full of the day – work or school and might be pre-occupied with thoughts about their day or worry about their lesson. So we take a moment, and you can feel the energy in the car soften. It’s a lovely starting point. If they get particularly stressed or if there’s a challenging situation throughout the lesson, I’ll suggest that we pull over and I’ll invite them to do the practice again.

Use the Force!

And then there’s somatics. Somatics describes any practice that uses the mind-body connection to help you survey your internal self and listen to signals your body sends out. This allows you to access more information about the ways you hold on to your experiences in your body. Often, pupils are so up in their heads that they don’t know what their arms and legs are doing or how they are feeling. I invite them to be a bit more conscious about what they’re feeling. I say: “Don’t think too hard about it.” I almost say: “Use the Force!”

I get them to use their senses – like asking them what it feels like when they brake. They’ll say it feels like they’re being pulled back in their seat. So I’ll remind them that that’s what they need to be aware of; they need to have that sense of the car slowing down before they put the clutch down. They need to be aware of how to tell if the car is actually slowing down. So I get them to sense into the body and what it feels like.

Have you noticed a difference in how Mindfulness can help pupils who engage with it?

I really have. The anxious ones can learn tools to really help calm their anxiety. I remind them to breathe as they often hold their breath!

Some pupils now better understand about sharing the road with others. For example, it’s quite stressful when someone else is right behind you – it can trigger the fear response. So now they know what’s happening in the other driver’s brain, they don’t take things so personally and that’s hugely helpful.

I have one pupil, who I hadn’t seen since before Christmas. He got into the car for a lesson recently and said: “I just wanted to tell you that I’m still using mindfulness. I’ve been taking time for myself and just breathing.” It was good to hear as he’d been stressed with school and exams. So, you see, it becomes part of your life. I thought that was amazing – it kind of makes me emotional.

What difference has using mindfulness made to your pupils’ pass rate?

I don’t know just yet, because there haven’t been any tests. But, for the year or two before lockdown, pupils have said to me: “I couldn’t have done it without you.” Some of them had been panicking before their test and I’d pull them over and do some breathing exercises with them. It really helped them.

More recently a pupil who was usually quite a confident driver had real test day nerves out of the blue. He engaged with some breathing techniques and found himself telling the examiner all about it! It really helped and he was thrilled to pass first time.

What are you doing now to bring mindfulness to more pupils and their ADIs?

I’m now qualified as a mindfulness teacher and a number of my pupils are coming on my courses. A young lad who passed with me last year has embraced mindfulness and he’s done the MBSR. And now his mum’s on the course!

As for ADIs, I’ve set up the Guild of Mindful Driver Trainers. I’m working in collaboration with the Driving Instructors’ Association to bring mindfulness and compassion to driver and rider trainers.

I’ve developed a 6-week course for Zoom, which is one and a half hours a week and starts in June. I’ve worked with a focus group to understand different ADIs’ challenges. For example, managing physical pain (leg, neck, back and shoulder pain) It can also help with diary management and how Mindfulness can enhance relationships with their pupils and other road users. My goal is to bring mindfulness to ADIs, giving them the tools to support themselves and their pupils.

Finally, San, how do you think mindfulness can change people’s behaviour on the road?

Mindfulness is coming into schools. I think, in a few years’ time, it’s going to be the norm. These kids will come out of school into my car. And there’ll be a connection between what they’ve learned in class and what I can teach them.

They’ll understand more easily what’s happening if someone is aggressive on the road. They’ll know it’s a fear response which floods the brain with adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone).

Mindfulness can help develop our emotional intelligence, which helps us to rationalise traffic situations instead of reacting emotionally – and potentially dangerously. That must be a great thing for road safety.

If you want to know more about San and the Guild of Mindful Drivers and Trainers, visit the Guild of Mindful Driver Trainers

And you can read more about how your state of mind can affect your driving in ‘The Official DVSA Guide to Better Driving’.

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