5 Simple Reasons Why Car Washes Might Give You Anxiety

The United States is home to approximately 16,000 car washes! This abundance ensures that drivers have multiple opportunities to keep their vehicles clean and tidy. However, going through an automatic car wash or paying for a manual wash might make you anxious.

Here are five reasons why car washes might give you anxiety:

  • Car washes can make you feel claustrophobic.
  • Failing to drive onto the track system can be embarrassing.
  • It’s challenging to know when the car wash is over.
  • Car wash attendants may yell instructions at you.
  • Automatic car wash machinery can be frightening.

Let’s explore these reasons in more detail to discover why I might feel anxious when preparing for a car wash. 

Car Washes Can Make Me Feel Claustrophobic

Approximately 12.5% of the population has claustrophobia, also known as a fear of small, enclosed spaces. According to a study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, claustrophobia primarily stems from a fear of suffocation and restriction.

Unfortunately, car washes can trigger both of these fears, resulting in a sudden onset of anxiety. Some individuals with claustrophobia may also experience a panic attack during a car wash, making it nearly impossible to communicate with attendants or operate a vehicle.

Whether you’re opting for an automatic car wash or a manual wash, sitting inside your car when it’s being washed can trigger symptoms of claustrophobia. Symptoms often include sweating, shortness of breath, a rapid heartbeat, and an extreme desire to flee the vehicle.

But why can car washes make you feel claustrophobic? The answer is a combination of visual and auditory stimuli.

When you’re inside a car that’s being washed, you’re able to see and hear gallons of water falling onto the car. This stimulus can trigger your brain to think that you’re at risk of drowning. And because you’re in an enclosed space, your body’s natural response is to escape and find a safe place.

Fortunately, there are several ways to combat feelings of claustrophobia during a car wash. For example, you could wear a sleep mask and listen to music with a pair of sound-blocking headphones. This option makes it impossible for the triggering stimuli to affect you.

Breathing exercises and visualization techniques (also called “going to your happy place”) may also help reduce claustrophobic feelings that arise during a car wash. 

Still, talk therapies and anti-anxiety medications may be the best route, particularly for those who experience intense symptoms of claustrophobia.

Failing to Drive Onto the Track System Can Be Embarrassing

Unlike manual car washes, automated car washes utilize a tire track system. After driving onto the starting area of the track, you’re expected to put the car in neutral. After this, the system slowly pushes the car through the wash area.

However, getting your car’s tires perfectly aligned with the track system can be challenging. It’s easy to feel embarrassed if you’re not able to drive onto the starting area with ease, as attendants may ask you to back up and try again.

Still, practice makes perfect! One of the best ways to overcome this source of car wash anxiety is to visit the same automated car wash every week. Over time, you’ll be able to drive onto the track system with ease and without feeling an immense amount of anxiety. 

It’s Challenging to Know When the Car Wash Is Over

Automatic car washes can be anxiety-inducing, especially during the final phase. That’s because some automated car washes have a prolonged drying phase, but others don’t. 

If you’re not careful, you may end up sitting in your car for several minutes, waiting for the drying fans to turn on, only to realize that the attendants are urging you to drive away. You might also accidentally leave the car wash before the drying phase begins. 

Both of these situations can cause you to feel anxious or embarrassed. However, you can reduce the risk of leaving too early or too late by spending a few minutes observing cars currently going through the wash. 

It might also be an excellent idea to speak with a car wash attendant before starting the wash. Taking the time to explore automated car washes in your area may also help, as you can select a car wash that offers plenty of signage and instruction, reducing anxiety related to leaving the wash.

Car Wash Attendants May Yell Instructions at Me

Individuals with social anxiety may find themselves experiencing fight-or-flight symptoms while interacting with others. These symptoms include increased heart rate, trembling, and an intense desire to flee the situation.

A car wash can trigger or worsen social anxiety. For example, automatic car washes often have attendants that guide customers onto the track system or help answer their questions before a wash begins. 

Manual washes can be even more anxiety-inducing, as they often involve several people washing your vehicle and asking questions about the service you’d like. If you’re experiencing anxiety symptoms before the wash has started, you may perceive these social interactions as negative.

An attendant may shout for you to stop your vehicle, turn slightly to one side, or put your car in neutral. Typically, this shouting is necessary for their words to rise above the volume of nearby machinery. However, those with social anxiety may feel that they’re being chastised or demeaned.

This perceived negativity can produce severe emotional responses, including sudden weeping, uncertainty, and panic. Preventing this type of social anxiety typically requires targeted therapy, though anti-anxiety medications may also help. 

Automatic Car Wash Machinery Can Be Frightening

Most automatic car washes utilize large brushes and watering systems to scrub away dirt and oil. This machinery is typically housed above the slow-moving vehicle or beside the car. 

When a car wash begins, the machinery may move along tracks to rinse the vehicle, apply soap, or scrub the car. However, these machines can trigger feelings of panic, particularly in those with mechanophobia. 

Mechanophobia (a fear of machinery) can induce panic attacks and alter the way you view the world around you. At its most extreme, this phobia can lead you to live a machine-free life and avoid electronics at all costs.

However, the type of technophobia that strikes during a car wash may be more related to a fear of being crushed or injured by machines than a paranoia concerning mechanical devices. As such, car wash machinery can trigger thoughts and feelings related to claustrophobia.

And much like overcoming claustrophobia, reducing the fear of car wash machinery typically requires talk therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy. However, some individuals may also benefit from taking anti-anxiety medication before entering an automatic car wash.

How Can You Overcome Car Wash Anxiety?

Learning how to overcome anxiety related to washing your car is crucial. After all, failing to keep your car’s exterior clean and well-washed has several consequences, all of which are avoidable. 

The best way to overcome car wash anxiety is to determine the precise source of your stress. A licensed therapist can help you discover why car washes make you anxious. They can help you select a targeted treatment plan that addresses the cause of your anxiety, reducing your fear of car washes. 

Use the table below to help identify the precise cause or sources of anxiety, as well as explore potential solutions. Naturally, speaking with a licensed therapist about fears and anxieties is one of the best ways to overcome car washing fears.

Reason for AnxietySigns and SymptomsPotential Solution
ClaustrophobiaSweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, a choking sensation, chest pain, a desire to escapeExposure therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, visualization coping techniques, breathing techniques, anti-anxiety medications
Difficulty Driving Onto the Track SystemWanting to exit the vehicle when it’s time to drive onto the track system, extremely slow driving when approaching the track systemAt-home practice with a friend or loved one, speaking with a car wash attendant before nearing the wash entry point, deep breathing exercises
Uncertainty About When to Drive AwayDriving away during the drying stage, putting the vehicle into drive before the car has reached the end of the track systemObserving signage, observing other cars exiting the wash, speaking with a car wash attendant before entering the wash
Unpleasant Social InteractionsAvoiding eye contact with car wash attendees, fast heartbeat, sweating, shortness of breath, ringing in ears, dizziness during social interactionsCognitive behavioral therapy that focuses on social anxiety, exposure therapy, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), anti-anxiety medications
Fear of Large MachineryTrembling, shortness of breath, a desire to escape machinery, a fear of being crushed or injured by machineryCognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, breathing exercises, anti-anxiety medications

Though it may take time to overcome the cause of your car wash anxiety, persistence and patience can help you learn to tolerate (and possibly enjoy) this standard vehicle maintenance task.

Key Takeaways

  • There are several reasons why car washes might make you anxious
  • Claustrophobia is one of the most common reasons
  • Seeking therapy for your anxiety may help
  • Washing your car is crucial to keeping it in tip-top condition


Jan-Lucas Ganssauge
Jan-Lucas Ganssauge