Where's your head at? Control your driving test nerves

Computer illustration of brain cross-section in blue, glowing, human head.

Published 9 April 2021
Last updated 2 February 2022

We look at what happens when you get stressed and why it occurs. We provide techniques to help manage stress and control your practical driving test nerves.

We know from your messages on Facebook and Twitter and our examiners’ everyday contact with candidates that you get nervous. Taking your driving test seems to be one of those occasions where you can actually get so stressed you cannot think straight and it may seriously affect your performance.

Telling you not to worry and to calm down is easier said than done, so let’s have a look at what happens when you get this stressed and what you can do to control your nerves.

Fight or flight

We know that thousands of years ago our ancestors lived in caves and had to cope with some pretty harsh conditions. Not least of these was the threat of big scary predators and to meet the basic need of self-preservation, our ancestors developed the ‘fight or flight’ instinct.

Rather than standing around debating what the best course of action would be when faced with the likes of a sabre-toothed tiger, our ancestors began to make very quick and primitive decisions about which would be safer; to fight the threat or run away from it. Those whose brains worked in this way were more likely to survive and this is how the instinct evolved.

Hijack situation

The fight or flight instinct is still with us today. Thankfully in our society we’re rarely faced with tigers or mammoths, but we do still face ‘threatening’ situations, which can bring on a bit of a panic – like sitting the driving test. And if we’re put in a situation where the ‘threat’ is serious enough, we go into ‘fight or flight’ mode – also known as blind panic!

This is sometimes called the ‘amygdala hijack’. The amygdala is the part of your brain that deals with emotion and, when a feeling becomes so overwhelming – like fear – all rational thought goes and your amygdala takes over. Your thoughts are ‘hijacked’.

The trick is either to train yourself not to panic in certain situations or to recognise your own panic symptoms and deal with them before they completely take over your brain. In the words of Eminem ‘palms are sweaty, knees are weak, arms are heavy’. Hopefully there’s no sign of Mom’s spaghetti, but you get the idea.

Pressure versus stress

A certain amount of pressure is good. Without it, most of us probably would not even bother getting out of bed in the morning. Pressure can motivate us to meet challenges and to achieve the best. However, pressure can mount and, when it becomes too much, turns into stress. This happens at a different level for everyone so it’s important to know how much you can take, what turns pressure into stress for you and what behaviours you display when that starts to happen.

Stress busting

Once you know what stresses you out, you can start to think about ways to cope with or reduce the stress. You’ll already know some ways to calm yourself down either in the short or long term:

  • deep-breathing techniques
  • counting to 10
  • taking a warm bath
  • practising yoga
  • meditation.

There are also some techniques you may not have considered that could help you master those driving test nerves

Stand up tall

Recent research has shown that standing or sitting in certain poses can significantly alter your body chemistry and relieve stress. These have been called ‘power poses’. One is to stand with your arms stretched above your head, as in victory, and to look up. This has been proved to reduce the levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and increases the level of testosterone (the assertion or confidence hormone).

Of course, you cannot adopt the full-on Superman stance when you’re taking your driving test, but you’ll feel better if you just sit up tall, put your shoulders back and lift up your chin. Practise at home filling the available space with your body, rather than folding inwards, and you should begin to feel the benefit

Say ‘cheese’

Smiling is good for you. It makes you feel more positive and, weirdly, you do not need to actually feel happy enough to smile naturally for the benefits to show. Your body does not know the difference between a fake smile and a real one – the reaction in your brain will be the same and you will actually start to feel happier. The saying is ‘Fake it 'til you make it!’

‘Music charms a savage breast’

Different songs and pieces of music produce varied responses in different listeners. Go through your song list and find some that make you feel either calm or motivated – but not too pumped up! Put them in a playlist and listen to it all the way through several times, noting the calm and happy feelings you experience as you hear each song.

This may come as a surprise, but you’re allowed to listen to music during your driving test, so long as it’s quiet and in no way disruptive; you have to be able to hear what the examiner’s saying and to concentrate on your driving. So, you can play your ‘happy’ song list at low volume during the test. With luck, that will start to make you feel as you did when you listened to it under less stressful circumstances.

The best way to control your nerves is to make sure that you’re absolutely ready to take your test. Practise, practise, practise until you’ve reached a good standard and that’ll give you the confidence to perform well. Then, on the day, smile, take some deep breaths, stand tall and take yourself to a happy place!

Inspired by a presentation given by Danielle Brown, double Paralympic gold medallist in archery, 3-times world champion and motivational speaker.

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