Coping with Driving Stress - Road Rage Prevention TacticsUpdated Aug. 8, 2020
Stress is a natural human response to extreme mental or physical demands. While low to moderate stress in some situations can be a good thing, it can have an adverse effect on your ability to drive safely. Driving is a stressful activity, as it requires you to remain alert, alternate between multiple tasks and avoid dangerous situations. If you get behind the wheel while already suffering from stress caused by other events or pressures, you may become too stressed to pay attention, properly assess the roadway and make sensible driving decisions.
Our busy lives driven by work and achievement make it extremely difficult to avoid stress altogether; most of us suffer from stress to some degree. As a driver, you must understand how stress affects you and learn to recognize when it would not be safe for you to drive.
Why do we experience stress?
Human beings have evolved to experience stress in threatening or highly demanding situations, as it can lead to improved performance when the stakes are high. For example, the stress you experience in the run-up to an important exam may make you hit the books harder and leave you with a better grade. In sporting competitions, stress can make you run faster, hit harder and keep going for longer.
A little bit of stress while driving can be a good thing, if it encourages you to concentrate harder and react faster to events around your vehicle. Unfortunately, most of the stress we experience while driving is not actually driving-related. If you take stress from other sources with you when you jump into the driver’s seat, the chances are that your driving performance will be hindered rather than improved.
Different responses to stress
Stress manifests itself in different ways in different people. All stress responses can negatively impact driving ability. For instance, you may respond to stress by:
Shutting down and becoming withdrawn. You may zone out while driving, fail to scan the roadway actively, miss hazards and suffer slowed responses to changes in the roadway environment.
Becoming angry or agitated. This could result in speeding, weaving across lanes, aggressive behavior toward other road users or taking unnecessary risks.
Having periods of mental blank, whereby you completely ignore events on the roadway or cannot formulate an appropriate response to upcoming changes.
It is important that you identify how you respond to stress, so that you can recognize and act against it when it occurs.
Sources of driving stress
Even driving in ideal conditions can increase stress levels, as it is always a mentally and physically demanding experience. In less favorable conditions, there are dozens of different situations that could lead you to become more stressed – or even too stressed to drive. Excessive stress will lead you to drive dangerously if it is not kept in check. You must learn to recognize when you are becoming stressed behind the wheel and take steps to mitigate any negative driving behavior it causes. Below, we’ll talk you through some common stressful situations to look out for.
Whether your passengers make your driving experience easier or more stressful will depend on their behavior and the situation outside your vehicle. The presence of one or more passengers in your car can lead to a greater level of stress if:
A passenger tries to get your attention while you are trying to focus on a driving-related task.
You do not feel confident in your driving skills and are concerned about your passenger’s safety.
Your passenger criticizes or second-guesses decisions you are making behind the wheel.
You feel pressured to drive faster or more recklessly to impress your passengers, or are embarrassed by your cautious driving.
Keep in mind that most states do not allow teenage or novice drivers to carry passengers until they are fully qualified. You can find up-to-date information on this in your state driving manual. If you do carry passengers, remember that safety always comes first. When your passenger behaves in a way that you find stressful or distracting, you must ask them to stop and pull over if they refuse. Most passengers are willing to behave themselves if faced with the threat of walking!
Nothing puts stress levels through the roof quite like running late for work, school or an important event. Do not let the desire to be on time force you to drive at unsafe speeds or in an otherwise reckless manner. If you have run out of time, accept that you will be late but that you will arrive safely by keeping yourself calm. It is better to be late than dead.
The stress associated with running late can be avoided by allowing yourself more time than you think you need to get ready. Set your alarm half an hour earlier than you would usually, it will be worth it when you get into the car with 10 or 15 minutes to spare. Remember that defensive drivers plan ahead to avoid dangerous situations on the roadway. This can mean making defensive decisions before you get behind the wheel. Giving yourself more time in the morning is a great example of this, as it completely removes lateness-related stress from the equation.
Challenging roadway conditions
It does not take a genius to reason that complex or difficult driving environments will increase the stress you experience while driving. If you have more hazards to deal with and more decisions to make in a shorter time, your brain will be under greater strain and you will be more susceptible to making risky, stress-induced decisions. Stressful road conditions may include:
- Congested, “stop and go” city traffic
- Poor weather which worsens traction or visibility
- Noisy, dangerous road-work sites
- Busy, high-speed expressways
In the face of any adverse driving conditions, try to remember that you cannot improve the situation by getting stressed out. Take a deep breath and remain calm, as becoming too stressed could create more challenges if it leads you to make a mistake.
Finding an appropriate place to park and maneuvering into your space can be one of the most stress-inducing driving experiences – particularly in busy lots or congested streets where good parking spots are rare. You may have to deal with pedestrians, obstacles like shopping carts, children, animals, frustrated drivers and moving vehicles. It is very easy to become overwhelmed when there are so many hazards interfering with your ability to focus on the task at hand.
Never get into an argument with another motorist over a parking spot. If they refuse to give up their claim to the space, move on and find something else. Absolutely no good will come from you trying to hold your ground, whether you are “in the right” or not. In choosing a parking space, you can avoid a great deal of stress by opting for a spot slightly further away from your destination. You may have to walk a little further, but you will probably get a spot that is easier to maneuver into and will be faced with less competition from other drivers.
Driving in unfamiliar territory can be stressful even when you plan for it. Taking a wrong turn and end up in an unfamiliar place by accident is an extremely upsetting experience for most drivers. You may become completely distracted by place names, guide signs, building numbers and other information that does not immediately relate to the driving task. It is always wise to plan out your journey before setting off, to minimize the risk of getting lost or taking a wrong turn along the way.
If you do get lost (it happens to most drivers at one time or another), the important thing is that you do not panic. Pay attention to the roadway and find a safe, convenient place to pull over. You can then have a proper look around your vehicle and use your GPS or cellphone to figure out where you are.
Coping with stress while driving
In times of stress or emotional upset, we often feel completely at the mercy of our own emotions. This defeatist attitude is neither useful to you, nor representative of the truth! If you choose to take control of your feelings in a stressful situation, you may be surprised at how quickly you can calm yourself down. Remember, it is your mind and you can control it.
Here are some stress-busting strategies to help you stay safe behind the wheel:
If you feel yourself getting worked up at other drivers’ mistakes, remind yourself that nobody drives perfectly all the time and they could just be having a bad day.
If you are negatively preoccupied with another person, choose not to give them the power to make you upset. Put negative thoughts to one side and focus on the most important task: keeping yourself safe.
Forgive yourself. If you are late, tired or feeling underprepared for the day ahead, do not let these thoughts distract you from driving. Everybody has bad days from time to time!
Be kind to yourself. Make sure you get plenty of sleep, eat well and do your best to live a healthy lifestyle. A nourished and well-rested body is far less susceptible to the effects of stress.
Above all else, you must recognize that extreme stress will render you totally unfit to drive. If you cannot get your stress under control, do not get into the driver’s seat. Sometimes, stress can strike while you are driving. If this happens, do not use the fact that you are already behind the wheel as an excuse to turn a blind eye to the situation. Find the next safe spot to pull over and spend a few minutes relaxing, to bring your stress back down to a reasonable level before you carry on.
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