Life in the Fast Lane

Life in the Fast Lane

I was having dinner last week with my friend Jane (I will call her Jane, since that is her real name), who was very upset and frustrated about her drive home. Her nine mile drive that normally takes 20 minutes, took over an hour.

This story is nothing new to those who commute to work on a daily basis. We encounter accidents, disabled vehicles, slow drivers, or simply too much traffic for the design of the road. So, if heavy, bogged down traffic is a way of life, the question I have is how do you react to it? Do you, like Jane become frustrated and angry, or do you roll with the punches? Nearly 80 percent of drivers expressed significant anger, aggression or road rage behind the wheel at least once a year according to a 2016 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. The most alarming findings suggest that approximately eight million U.S. drivers engaged in extreme examples of road rage, including purposefully ramming another vehicle (5.7 million drivers), or getting out of the car to confront another driver (7.6 million drivers). While these are some of the extreme responses, here are the typical driver reactions listed in the study:

– Purposefully tailgating: 51% (104 million drivers)
– Yelling at another driver: 47% (95 million drivers)
– Honking to show annoyance or anger: 45% (91 million drivers)
– Making angry gestures: 33% (67 million drivers)
– Trying to block another vehicle from changing lanes: 24% (49 million drivers)
– Cutting off another vehicle on purpose: 12% (24 million drivers)

If any of the above sounds familiar to you, at least you are in good company. Let’s take a moment to think about what is going on in your body when you have a stressful reaction to traffic. You trigger your sympathetic nervous system. As cortisol and adrenaline begin coursing through your blood stream, your heart rate and blood pressure increase, blood is diverted away from the digestive system and your body prepares for a “threat”. Now wait a minute, all this is going on due to being stuck in traffic? Yes, this is your body’s response, but it is not actually due to the traffic, it is due to how your brain reacts to your perception of the stress. The good news is that since this type of stress is created in your brain, you have a choice to use your mind to either calm the stress reaction, or even learn how to control your emotions so you don’t even react to heavy traffic. After all, think about it, we are not talking about a threat to your safety (unless you happen to be on your way to an ER), it just means your drive is going to take more time than you anticipated.

Training your brain to avoid a stressful response is not that hard. It is simply learning how to manage your emotional response to a minor bump in the road in relation to other factors/situations we face in life. Mindfulness is one of many ways to calm your mind and mitigate a negative response. The first step is to take deep breaths through your nose. Immediately, you will stimulate your vagus nerve which will help lower both your blood pressure and heart rate. As your breathing stimulates a calming effect, take notice of your body. Are your hands tightly gripping the steering wheel, is your jaw clenched, or is there tightness in your chest and arms? Notice the stress responses in your body and focus on reducing those sensations. You can use your calming breath to relax your body parts which are feeling the stress driven by the chemical reactions triggered in your brain.

Now that you are calmer and “off the ledge”, you can continue to use your calming breath, or maybe use your time stuck in traffic to reflect on all of the wonderful things in your life. It is amazing how we always find time to think about the negative things, but don’t focus enough on the positives. Why is that? Well, neuropsychologists would tell you that our brains develop a negative tilt. We aren’t born that way, but over time we naturally, or unnaturally develop a propensity for negative thinking. I have many theories why this happens, but what is more important is that you can re-train your brain and change that negative tilt, and stop that chatter in your head.

Being stuck in traffic might just be a time to take notice of all of the wonderful things in your life. Perhaps this “alone time” is an opportunity to take a fresh look at things that bring you joy. Maybe it is a sunny day, and you will find yourself smiling. There are so many great things in your life, and now is the perfect time to take notice. The more you think about these things, you might just find yourself feeling grateful for the many positives in your daily life. With practice, this can actually become a habit and how great is that!

So, the next time you are stuck in the slow lane, take the time to calm your mind, reflect and realize sometimes the slow lane is much better than the fast lane. Jane patiently listened to my perspective on dealing with heavy traffic, and she politely thanked me for offering her an alternative to feeling frustrated. She seemed to like my suggestions, but after some thought, she wondered if it would still be ok listen to Aretha Franklin on her play list as well? Me, I just can never get any RESPECT!

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