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My mom, Rebecca Thomas, never liked driving. So when she moved to New York City many years ago in her early 20s, she was glad to give up her car. “New Yorkers don’t drive. And when I got married, my husband did all of the out-of-town driving. I didn’t drive again for 20 years,” confides Mom, now 55.

Currently living in suburban New Jersey, my mother literally maps out her life to avoid stressful driving situations. “I don’t do highways, period,” she says. “If I have to get somewhere that requires highway driving, I’ll hire a service or ask a friend.” Although the back roads Mom takes to work add a half-hour to her commute, she doesn’t mind: “The extra time is worth it for me, just to avoid stress.”

My dad, Keith, on the other hand, describes himself as a supremely confident driver. Yet the 59-year-old does admit he’s prone to behind-the-wheel stress, which, for him, manifests as anger. Traffic, construction, crowded parking lots, other drivers’ incompetence – for Dad, even driving to the market can devolve into an exercise in acute aggravation.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to call it ‘road rage,'” he says, “but in the car my blood pressure definitely rises. And I’m embarrassed by some of the names I call people.”

My parents are prime examples of the different ways drivers experience stress behind the wheel. From getting stuck in commuter traffic to getting cut off on the freeway, our everyday driving experiences can trigger feelings of anger, frustration and helplessness. And with more people on the road than ever before, it’s no wonder our time spent in the car is driving us around the bend.

According to Anthony Downs, a senior fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., Americans added 1.2 vehicles – cars, trucks and buses – to the road for every person added to the population between 1980 and 2000. In that same period, total population rose by 24 percent, while the number of miles driven each year ballooned by 80 percent. And with Americans spending increasingly more time in their cars – on average, it’s now 1.5 hours a day – everyday driving stress can easily compound and take a real toll on overall health and happiness.

Whether your driving stress emerges as anxiety or exasperation, experts agree that by identifying and defusing common on-the-road stressors, you’ll be more likely to arrive at your final destination cool, calm and collected – and enjoy yourself more along the way.

Wisdom on Wheels

The first step toward developing a better driving life involves identifying your own behind-the-wheel triggers. These might be flash-point situations like getting cut off on the freeway or slogging through inner-city gridlock. Or they might be fear-based stressors like driving in bad weather, merging onto busy highways, changing lanes, and driving over bridges or through tunnels.

Many times, such anxieties have some basis in reality, says Stan Hyman, LCSW, founder and director of the Aventura Stress Relief Centers in Florida and author of Fearless Driving: A Six-Step Program to Conquer Your Driving Fears. “Driving on the highway surrounded by large trucks can feel claustrophobic. Add to that speeds of 60 miles per hour or more, and a driver has a valid reason for being careful.”

But when faced with a discomforting trigger, anxious drivers often fall prey to irrational worries, says Hyman: “They think a truck is going to crush them, or that they’re going to spontaneously drive into the water when crossing a bridge.”

The trouble is, he explains, regardless of whether our stressful thoughts or assumptions have any rational basis, they tend to increase our physiological stress response, which in turn feeds more worrying, “like a dog chasing its tail.”

“I start by teaching my clients about the body’s response to stress,” says Hyman. “There are two legs to a fear: the physiological response, such as increased heart rate, sweating, breathing shallowly, etc., and the psychological component. It’s helpful for people to recognize that their thoughts drive their feelings and that their feelings manifest in these physical symptoms. Once they identify and learn to control their irrational thoughts, they realize they can control their physical stress levels.”

Individuals prone to hostility triggers can also benefit from identifying their primary road stressors. Arnold P. Nerenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in quick-to-anger drivers, has found that more than half of American drivers struggle with road aggression.

According to Nerenberg, the five traffic situations that most commonly incite drivers are:

  1. Endangerment (feeling imperiled when others cut you off or tailgate).
  2. Having to slow down for another driver (particularly hard for aggressive drivers since they are more likely to speed than their calmer counterparts).
  3. “Stolen” parking spots.
  4. Direct challenges from other drivers (think rude gestures and yelling out the window).
  5. Observing other drivers breaking the rules of the road.

Road Warriors, Make Peace

Now that you’ve identified common driving roadblocks, how do you begin to bypass them? Marilee Adams, PhD, author of Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 7 Powerful Tools for Life and Work, suggests changing your perspective from a “Judger” to a “Learner.”

When drivers are in Judger mode – reactive, self-righteous, blaming – they can often turn aggressive with very little provocation, says Adams. From there, they are far more prone to do things they’ll later regret (“That guy just cut me off. What a jerk! I’ll show him!”). In contrast, switching into Learner mindset – thoughtful, accepting, responsible – allows drivers to view a trigger situation with curiosity (“Hmm, this guy’s driving pretty erratically. I wonder why he’s in such a hurry?”). “It gives you access to that part of yourself that can actually save your life,” Adams says.

To shift from Judger to Learner on the road, Adams recommends asking yourself such key questions as: “Am I being reactive right now?” “How can I calm down and think more rationally?” “What could happen if I don’t get control of myself?” “Am I willing to hurt myself or someone else just because some guy cut me off?”

According to Adams, “Such open-minded Learner questions give us the breathing space to get back in control, make well-reasoned choices, and take care of ourselves and those around us.”

There will always be circumstances that are out of your control – a bottleneck on the way to work or a detour that takes you into uncharted territory – but the key thing to remember is that how you react on the road is up to you.

Steering Clear of Road Stress

Need some help staying calm behind the wheel? Try making use of attitude-altering habits like these:

  • Put time on your side. Rushing to beat the clock makes driving frustration and anxiety worse. Try allowing at least 10 extra minutes for your next trip. You’ll find that you not only drive safer, you’ll also be less given to fear-based notions like, “If I’m late, everyone will think I’m unreliable” or anger-based thoughts like, “This fool had better let me in, or else!” The result? A more pleasant journey.
  • Engage in moving meditation. Think of driving not as a necessary evil, but as an opportunity to unwind and meditate on the day. Ditch the cell phone. Listen to calming music or books on tape; observe the passing scenery; use traffic slowdowns as opportunities to do some deep breathing.
  • Practice drive-by smiling. Instead of adopting a road-warrior mentality, try applying the golden rule behind the wheel. Go beyond basic courtesy to make friendly eye contact, smile and invite others to go ahead. The camaraderie you’ll feel on the road will stay with you throughout the day.

This article originally appeared as “De-Stress Your Driving” in the October 2006 issue of Experience Life.

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