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Are you letting road rage endanger you?

July 1, 1993

Are you letting road rage endanger you?

By The Counseling Corner from the American Counseling Association

By The Counseling Corner

The American Counseling Association

Frustration behind the wheel. It’s a common occurrence for anyone driving on today’s crowded highways. Traffic jams, people driving slowly in the fast lane, someone turning without signaling, reckless drivers, cutting you off.

Sometimes the frustration of the modern highway leads to a violent reaction. We’ve all seen news reports of accidents and even deaths caused by people losing self-control after a negative traffic experience. It’s commonly called “road rage,” and it’s an increasingly frightening phenomenon on highways jammed with far too much traffic.

Although such extreme reactions are, fortunately, still rare, most of us experience at least a mild form of road rage more often than we realize. We may react to traffic or the bad driving of others with angry words, menacing looks or even rude hand gestures. Or we may just grip the wheel more tightly and steam internally about how stupid or inconsiderate our fellow drivers can be.

Whatever the reaction, it usually makes us feel worse and likely hampers our own driving skills. Our goal, therefore, is to recognize road rage when it occurs and to take steps to minimize its effects.

Actually, the frustration we call road rage can also happen in numerous other situations. It occurs when progress toward our desired goal is thwarted. Physically, that sets off a stress reaction: We tighten our muscles, the circulatory system becomes constricted, blood pressure rises, our skin becomes flushed, our pupils dilate, and our digestive system shuts down. Psychologically, our thoughts and language become aggressive. We probably wish ill to those we perceive as “blocking” our progress, and we want to express our displeasure.

Such reactions, whether in the car or anywhere else, are an automatic response to a stressful situation, the “fight or flight” reaction to stress inherited from our prehistoric ancestors. It’s our body taking action to protect us.

But simply because it’s an automatic reaction doesn’t mean it can’t be controlled. We can’t, of course, control the traffic or that other driver. The road will be jammed whether we’re there or not. It isn’t personal, and there is nothing we can do about it except try another route, or travel at a different, less crowded time.

Similarly, that inconsiderate driver was driving poorly before we came along and will be doing so after we pass. Getting angry, calling names and making gestures will not make him or her a better driver, nor will it really make you feel any better. Health experts often advise, “Don’t waste your energy trying to manipulate the environment, but rather, spend your energy finding a more healthy way to relate to that environment.” The one thing you can control is your own reaction. You want to make the best of the situation in terms of your own health and that of others.

As noted above, a stressful situation, such as a traffic jam when you’re hurrying to work, will bring various physical and psychological reactions. One way to overcome your road rage is to recognize those reactions and do something to minimize them.

For tight muscles, try relaxing them. Yes, taking several deep breaths actually will help. As you do so, concentrate on one muscle group (perhaps one leg or your neck and shoulders), and consciously try to relax those muscles, then go on to other muscle groups. If you can’t get them to relax, try intentionally tightening them, holding it for a second or two, and then relaxing. Focusing on this physical activity can help counter the normal physiological reactions to stress.

It is also important to gain control of your mental focus as well. If you have a radio, tape deck or CD player, turn on some favorite music or the news. Try to focus on what you are hearing rather than on the traffic or an individual bad driver.

These simple actions can help relax you, yet leave you alert and able to respond to traffic. They help you not be a threat to your own health or that of others. But if you find that these things don’t help, and that you frequently become highly angry or stressed behind the wheel, consider seeking out a professional counselor for relaxation training or stress management. It may be the best thing you can do for yourself, and it just may save your life.

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