How to Control Anger in Bad Traffic

It’s so easy to take traffic delays personally. You’re desperate to make your appointment on time – to get to the doctor, pick up children from school, keep an important business deadline – and every red light, every slow driver hogging your lane, feels like some universe-wide conspiracy designed to frustrate you. Could it be you are over reacting?

Are You Roadrageous?

Do any of the following driving behaviours sound like you?

  • I regularly exceed the speed limit in order to get to work on time.
  • I tailgate other drivers, especially those who sit in the left lane.
  • I flash my lights and honk my horn to let drivers know when they annoy me.
  • I verbally abuse other drivers whether they can hear me or not.
  • I frequently weave in and out of traffic to get ahead.
  • I feel the need to set bad drivers straight.

If you answered yes to some or all of these questions, you’re in danger of being “roadrageous” – in other words you could be an aggressive, hostile driver who may be endangering your own health as well as being a potential menace to others.

But isn’t getting mad a natural man-thing?

Being a bit hot-headed and pushy – well that’s just testosterone talking, you might think. It’s expected in assertive, successful men – and yes in these emancipated times, of achieving women too. But there’s a downside to the masterful, short-fused Type A personality.

Your body’s full-blooded physical response to anger might have come in handy when our ancestors were trying to club a cave bear to death. But it really doesn’t help much when you get stuck at a red light.  In fact, uncontrolled anger is worse than useless: It’s bad for you. Several studies have shown those who had high levels of anger — but normal blood pressure — were more likely to develop coronary artery disease or have a heart attack. The angriest were three times as likely to have a heart attack as the least angry.

Anger’s stress hormones may contribute to arteriosclerosis, the build-up of plaques in the arteries that can cause heart attacks and strokes. These hormones may also increase levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), which causes inflammation and may also contribute to cardiovascular risk. One 2004 study in Psychosomatic Medicine found that people prone to anger had levels of CRP twice or three times as high as others. Anger can even cause electrical disturbances in the heart rhythm.

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What happens to your body when you get angry

• Levels of hormones, like cortisol, increase.
• Your breathing gets faster.
• Your pulse gets faster.
• Your blood pressure rises.
• As you heat up, you begin to sweat.
• Your pupils dilate.
• You may notice sudden headaches.

Screaming at other drivers, blasting the horn indiscriminately, lane jumping and venting rage won’t act as a safety valve, in fact it will have the opposite result – even less control.  But neither will suppres    sing your frustration – just bottling it up inside – do any good. Both are harmful to health, and likely to result ultimately in loss of control.

What to do about anger in traffic?

1)      Add ten minutes to your expected travel time: Invariably, if you push yourself to the final minute to leave for an appointment, the traffic lights will work against you. There will be an accident or road construction that causes a traffic tie up. The solution is to allow enough time to compensate for all but the worst case scenario. This will allow you to begin the trip relaxed. If there are delays, it is unlikely that they will make you late.

2)      Take a deep breath: Since feeling angry is in part a physical process, you won’t be able to just talk yourself out of it logically. Instead, you need to calm yourself down physically. Breathe in and out deeply from your diaphragm, which is under your chest bone. After a minute or so, you should feel some tension ebb away. You can lower your heart rate and blood pressure as well as control your anger.

3)      Tune the radio to some station that plays music that will relax you. Or have an audio book available: Try the latest political thriller, or a business or motivational speaker, to distract you from feeling you are wasting time.

4)       Spend the down time thinking: Consider your next project or an important conversation that you may need to have with someone. Think of a fun thing you would like to do and make a pledge with yourself to do it.  Think of a worst case scenario that involves bad driving and remind yourself you do not want to be the victim.

5)      Ensure you are getting plenty of sleep: A national epidemic of sleepiness is a contributing factor to road rage, according to the National Sleep Foundation. We all know how cranky we get without enough sleep. It makes us prone to feelings of annoyance, resentment and even anger. Eight hours is still the recommended daily dose of sleep for adults.

6)      Your car is not a therapist. Many of us love and identify with our cars but sometimes you can take the “car as extension of self” idea too seriously. If your boss or your spouse left you steaming, take care not to use driving as a way to blow off steam. Competitive types (you know who you are) shouldn’t try to prove themselves on heavily travelled thoroughfares — save that enthusiasm for weekend romps on your favourite back roads. No matter how much power you’ve got under the hood, your vehicle is first and foremost a mode of transportation, not a weapon.

7)      Chill Out: If you notice yourself clenching the steering wheel in a death grip, try flexing your fingers and loosening your hold — you’ll find that you can control the car just as well. If your right foot is cramped, set the cruise control if traffic allows. If you’re on a prolonged road trip, try not to exceed three hours of travel time without a break where you get out and stretch. Struggling to see through a dirty windshield is also an unnecessary stress factor, so fill up with washer fluid before you go. Periodically roll down the window and breathe deeply and slowly.

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