Saturday, April 24, 2010

Rage on the Road: Does Counting to 10 Really Work?

The typical day: I am making my typical drive down Route 422 between Armand Hammer Boulevard and King of Prussia, I reach the Collegeville/Phoenixville area, and the brake lights come on. Traffic. Sigh. Inevitably there are other drivers who tailgate, and when I leave the suggested amount car lengths between my car and the vehicle in front of me, someone cuts in front of me. I feel my heart rate increase, and my hands clench the steering wheel...Deep Breath...Deep Breath.

This scene is, no doubt, repeated in thousands of vehicles every day. The reaction to this scenario varies from person to person, but the fact remains that there are many who cannot cope with the stress of congested traffic or other daily sources of stress. The issue was thrust into the spotlight last week when John Andrew Yannarel shot a woman on Route 422, triggering a chain of events that ultimately led to his suicide. This incident highlights the phenomenon of "road-rage," a state that can bring even the most calm and patient driver to behave in uncharacteristic ways. In fact, many high-anger drivers identify themselves as aggressive drivers or road-rage junkies, engaging in yelling profanities, honking their horn wildly, making obscene gestures, or driving erratically, weaving in and out of traffic.

Unfortunately, for John Yannarell, other issues may have compounded this tendency, and exaggerated what, for many, would simply be a long drive on Route 422. In Yannarell's case, alleged pre-existing issues involving anger and substance abuse may have contributed to his extreme emotional reaction when faced with a high stress situation. The bad news is that there are other drivers on the road who are less-than-courteous and behave badly. The good news is that relaxation and changing the way we view stress can help decrease the effects of this stress on drivers.

Here are some simple relaxation tips that you can do every day to help decrease the effect of stress....

1. Decrease the likelihood of becoming stressed by taking proactive strategies to lessen your odds of becoming stressed. For example, be sure your car has enough gas, you've had enough sleep, a good breakfast, and you leave in ample time so you are not stressed about missing that 9am meeting. If you are on "E" and were up half the night working on a proposal, your mental energy is low, and you are more likely to become angry when that person cuts you off.

2. Bring something along that you enjoy, such as books on tape or your favorite music. When the traffic backs up, switch over to calm and soothing music.

3. Research shows that taking that deep breathe really does decrease the level of agitation you feel when you are angry. When we are agitated, we have what is known as a "fight or flight" response. When you are sitting in bumper to bumper traffic, you can't do either. When explaining this to patients, I often liken this to our primitive reflex to flee when faced with a saber-toothed tiger. On 422, there is no tiger to fight, and no way out.

4. Practicing progressive muscle relaxation can help lessen the tension we feel, decreasing headaches and sore muscles resulting from tension. I often don't realize that my shoulders are up next to my ears until I take a deep breath and release my shoulders.

5. Substance abuse or untreated emotional issues can cause us to react in extreme ways. If you are having trouble managing your anger or other emotions, ask for help.


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