Most drivers fall prey to road rage or other similar types of aggressive behavior. In fact, according to a recent survey, nearly 8 of every 10 U.S. drivers admit expressing such feelings. The behavior could include following too closely, yelling at another driver, cutting them off or making angry gestures.
Unsurprisingly, the most aggressive and aggrieved drivers are young men ages 19 to 39. Male drivers are also more aggressive — they are three times more likely than females to get out of a car to confront another driver or ram another vehicle on purpose.
“Far too many drivers are losing themselves in the heat of the moment and lashing out in ways that could turn deadly,” said Jurek Grabowski, the research director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
But no one is really safe from this type of behavior. Tailgating (following vehicles too closely) was the most common aggressive behavior, reported by almost half of all drivers. Nearly half of drivers also reported yelling or honking to show their annoyance. About a third of drivers indicated they’d made angry gestures at another driver.
So how can you stay calm?
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Finding your zen
Dr. Eric Storch from Baylor College of Medicine suggests a gradual approach to confronting driving fears. Start with less challenging routes and progressively work up to more complex driving situations. If road rage is a concern, maintaining a courteous demeanor at all times and avoiding engagement can be helpful. Deep breathing and focusing on the goal of reaching your destination can also mitigate anxiety.
It’s also important to be self-aware. The mental state induced by driving is influenced by various factors, including the environment, type of road, and even the vehicle itself. Choosing the right setting, time of day, and even the music you listen to can significantly affect your driving experience. Cultivating mindfulness behind the wheel enhances the benefits of calm driving.
Driving requires just enough attention and activity that it keeps you from ruminating but not so much that it’s taxing. This makes it the perfect reprieve after a draining day. You get to temporarily escape – both literally and figuratively – from whatever’s weighing on you.
In a car, you’re enclosed in a bubble, shut off from the demands constantly pinging your phone. You control the sights and sounds through the route you take and the music or podcasts you queue up. This ability to curate your sensory experience can be deeply calming.
At the same time, you’re driving over a ton of metal that can crash into something (or someone) at any time — so you can’t really afford to get distracted or angry. We take driving for granted, but we should always that aggressive driving contributes to fatal crashes and is on the rise.
So you can’t neglect safety just for relaxation’s sake — but you don’t need to give yourself to anger. Even if some roles are indeed stressful (imagine maintaining mental health when driving for Uber, for instance), you always have a responsibility as a driver.
Driving can be therapeutic
When the conditions are right, driving can indeed be therapeutic. It provides rare and precious alone time to decompress. Many drivers have experienced this, and as it turns out, there’s also some science on the potential benefits of driving.
Cruising down an open highway or empty countryside road allows your brain to fully process experiences and encode new memories. The parts of your brain tied up with focus, movement and environmental awareness are occupied just enough to let your higher cognitive facilities hum along.
Studies show driving stimulates the development of gray matter and neural pathways. This protective effect staves off age-related cognitive impairment. Of course, these benefits rely on practicing calm, attentive driving so your focus stays anchored in the present moment. Distracted driving negates these gains. But by keeping your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel, you pave the way for enhanced mental performance.
If you’ve ever gone on a Sunday drive or a long road trip by yourself, you know that driving can induce a nearly meditative state. The white noise of wheels on the pavement has a hypnotic quality. Your mind is occupied just enough to keep it from wandering to stressful subjects. The passing landscape immerses you in the present moment.
Merging mental health and road safety
Understanding the psychological impacts of driving is crucial for both mental health and road safety. By embracing calm driving practices and addressing the roots of road rage and anxiety, drivers can transform their time behind the wheel into a journey of mental rejuvenation. This shift in perspective not only enhances cognitive function but also contributes to a safer, more harmonious driving environment for everyone.
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