Coping with road rage

While recognizing that we can’t control what the ‘other’ driver will do, we can, however, take responsibility for our own behavior.

Woman driving 311 (photo credit: Thinkstock)
Woman driving 311
(photo credit: Thinkstock)
Who hasn’t experienced road rage, from the mildest form – a curse under the breath uttered at the car that just cut you off – to more serious and hostile action? According to research studies, we’re all at risk of being an abuser or a victim.
I recently treated H., a 70-year-old man who was driving slowly down a local street. The driver in the car behind him kept flashing his bright lights and beeping his horn. When H. stopped at a stop sign, the impatient driver behind him got out of his car and started screaming at H., banging his fist against the elderly man’s car.
When H. protested, the perpetrator’s anger escalated, and he put his hands on H. and began to shake him and curse him. Then the perpetrator jumped back into his vehicle and took off.
Throughout the next few weeks, H., a victim of road rage, could not sleep and was not able to get back on the road and drive again. It was clear that H. was suffering from a trauma, with all of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Common examples of road-rage behaviors include aggressive lane changing without signaling, horn blowing, tailgating, flashing high beams, verbal abusive behavior, and physically abusive or violent behavior as seen in the example above. Since the 1990’s when social scientists began studying the road rage phenomena, they have been hard-pressed to come up with a reliable theory that explains why some people drive normally and others are transformed into monsters when they get behind the wheel of a car. One school of thought, presented by mental health professionals, explains that road rage is as a subtype of a psychological disorder, labeled intermittent explosive disorder. IED is an impulse control disorder in the same grouping as pyromania, pathological gambling and other impulsive personality disorders.
People suffering from impulse control disorders find it difficult or even impossible to resist impulses to do things, even when these can harm themselves or others.
Stress researchers expound that chronic stress makes many drivers more vulnerable to letting things bother them, and their anger may be expressed in all types of situations – not only when driving. For a stressed driver, sitting in traffic and knowing you may be late for a meeting, or simply lacking the patience to drive calmly because of a bad mood or some specific worry playing in the back of your mind: all can put a driver over the edge and vulnerable to triggers that elicit aggressive behavior while driving. Another view is taken by sociologists, who postulate that cultural driving patterns are different from one society to another – and in fact influence the way people behave when they drive a motor vehicle.
While recognizing that we can’t control what the “other” driver will do, we can, however, take responsibility for our own behavior.
• When you get into the car, try to be mindful of what is going on inside your body and mind. Do you feel tense, worried or in a hurry? Be cognizant of the fact that your state of mind does influence your driving.
Inhale and exhale slowly and deeply a few times, close your eyes before starting the car and try to think of a pleasant thought. Try to hold on to that pleasant thought while driving.
• When you stop at a light, are caught in traffic or someone cuts you off, don’t let those things take away your relaxed state. Don’t personalize. If the guy behind you is giving you the brights, put on your blinker and go into the slower lane. Just tell yourself, “The other guy must be in a hurry; it is not directed at me.”
• Listen to some pleasant and relaxing music, and try deep breathing every time you find yourself getting tense.
• Never talk on the phone when you drive. Not only does this cause distractions for the driver, but it can also create tension and stress and may lead to an accident.
• Don’t allow yourself to get into arguments with other passengers in the car while you drive. This happens too often between parents and their children, or between spouses. This is certain to make you more vulnerable to road rage behavior.
• If you find yourself reacting and slipping into some type of road rage behavior, try to remember the consequences of dangerous driving – including getting a traffic violation, having your license suspended or revoked, dealing with increased auto insurance fees, damaging your car or the other driver’s car, getting sued, and most seriously, causing serious or fatal injuries to others or yourself and your passengers. Road rage victims and perpetrators have been pepper sprayed, stabbed, beaten, run down and shot by each other.
My Rosh Hashana wish to those of you who drive is that you should enjoy driving safely and carefully. Try your best to maintain a relaxed state, and don’t let other drivers get under your skin. The writer is a marital, child and adult psychotherapist practicing in Jerusalem and Ra’anana, who provides online videoconferencing psychotherapy.
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