Put the brakes on road rage
Driver alert: aggressive driving behaviour negatively affects your health. While few engage in extreme road rage, many of us drive aggressively on a daily basis.
After 15 minutes of inching forward during the morning commute, it’s almost your turn to merge when a driver cuts in front of you. Your pulse races, you lay on the horn, and mutter a few choice words. Driver alert: aggressive driving behaviour negatively affects your physical and psychological health.
While there is no consensus on a definition of road rage, Leon James and Diane Nahl, professors at the University of Hawaii, define aggressive driving as “driving under the influence of impaired emotions, resulting in behaviour that imposes one’s own preferred level of risk on others.”
While few of us engage in extreme road rage, many of us drive aggressively on a daily basis by running yellow lights, honking our horn, or yelling at “idiots.” If we are to believe media reports and the incidents we witness while driving, we might assume that road rage is on the increase.
John Vavrik, a psychologist with the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC), says there is no hard data kept on incidents of road rage in Canada. Researchers rely on self-reported surveys to obtain statistics.
“The estimates [of] are all over the map. It all depends on how we define road rage,” Vavrik says. “Media stories can fuel the perception that it’s more of a problem than it really is.”
Vavrik points out that when people hear about road rage incidents, they expect road rage to happen more often than it actually does. “Aggressive driving in general is a response to perceived motives of other drivers,” he says.
“If you’ve never heard of road rage you’re going to say, ‘Oh well, someone just cut in front of me because maybe they were a little slow when they realized they had to switch lanes.’ If you’re sensitive to the road rage issue, you’re going to interpret that action as being deliberately directed at you to make your life difficult,” says Vavrik.
Drivers behaving badly
So who’s most likely to engage in aggressive driving behaviour? Studies have consistently shown that males and younger drivers are most likely to drive aggressively. However, a 2003 survey in Ontario showed that road rage existed across all age groups with the exception of seniors.
Vavrik notes that in focus groups held by ICBC, women reveal that they are also driving aggressively behind the wheel. He says, “Women are much more likely to yell something or give a dirty look, and that’s where it stops. Males are socialized to demonstrate their aggression and dominance, and they’re more likely to actually do something about it.”
Not surprisingly, road rage increases significantly when drivers travel on busy roads in urban areas, and with the number of weekly kilometres driven. It is also higher for those who drive high-performance vehicles.
Three personality types
Vavrik identifies three personality types that are most likely to lose it on the road.
The first is the dominant individual who needs to be in control at all costs.
The second type is the individual who manages stress and emotions poorly.
The third type of individual feels the law applies to other people but not to him.
The common characteristic of road rage incidents is that they don’t happen all of a sudden, they escalate, according to Vavrik. A road rage incident is almost never one person’s fault.
Vavrik says the number one reason drivers give for engaging in aggressive driving behaviour is stress. When we lose control emotionally and vent our anger, our bodies pay the price. Road rage is dangerous to our health.
Mark Fenske, associate professor at the University of Guelph and co-author of The Winner’s Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2010), says that chronic stress, such as that exhibited in repeated road rage incidents, negatively affects our brains.
“Stress is any change in the environment, so generally when we have a change, the body works to maintain balance or homeostasis along all sorts of fronts,” says Fenske. When our body perceives a threat or stress, it prepares for a fight-or-flight response by releasing corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF). Cortisol is also released by the adrenal glands, and adrenaline and noradrenaline are secreted to increase our metabolism and heart rate.
Our bodies gear up to assess the environmental threat and to figure out how to respond to it. While the body does this, however, it shuts down nonessential systems. The release of the CRF triggers an increase in activity in the amygdala, an emotion-related centre in the limbic system of the brain that helps us identify potential threats and solve ambiguities.
The stressor takes precedence, so our cognitive problem-solving areas of the brain are deactivated. When this occurs regularly, we may experience reduced cognitive control, memory problems, and attention lapses. Long-term stress, says Fenske, can result in cell loss in the hippocampus, one of the brain’s key structures for memory.
“One of the best ways to reduce chronic stress is through mindfulness meditation,” says Fenske. “Basically, meditation is about controlling your attention, but it’s also about controlling your emotional response. So with that kind of mental training, if someone does cut you off, you can just accept [the] for what it is and let it go. You don’t get hung up on the perceived threat.”
“By training your attentional control and your cognitive control, that’s part of what helps you to maintain an emotional balance,” Fenske says. “Road rage is really a failure of self-regulation.”
Fenske explains that we have a limited amount of resources with which to exert self-control. If we have a bad day at work and manage to control our temper in that situation but someone cuts us off on our way home, we have already depleted our resources of self-control. We are more likely to react inappropriately than if we had a good day at work.
Cognitive control takes a lot of energy. In order for our brain cells to fire, they need oxygen and glucose, just like a car needs oxygen and fuel. Fenske says that if we have low glucose, our brain cells can’t operate optimally.
When are your kids most likely to have a temper tantrum?” Fenske asks. “It’s when they’re tired or hungry. We’re also more likely to fly off the handle when we’re hungry or fatigued.”
He recommends limiting fluctuations in blood sugar by eating small, frequent meals. Have a piece of dark chocolate before driving. It has a low-glycemic index so you won’t experience a sugar spike, plus it contains brain-healthy nutrients such as antioxidants and flavonols.
Besides brain overactivation, chronic stress can lead to hypertension, diabetes, immune system suppression, and gastrointestinal problems such as irritable bowel syndrome.
From a mental health standpoint, chronic stress can lead to anxiety, depression, rumination on the same topics (“I can’t believe that guy cut me off”), irritability, anger, obsession, and compulsive behaviours such as alcohol and drug use, and gambling.
Fenske advises that before you head out on your commute eat a healthy snack, take a deep breath, and allow yourself time to clear your head. We can’t change other drivers’ behaviour, but we can change how we respond to the stresses of the road.
Aromatherapy scents can help you relax while driving. Diffusers are available that plug into your car’s cigarette lighter.
Try these calming scents:
9 steps to an extreme driving makeover
The following tips from psychologists Vavrik and Fenske can help you de-stress your drive.