Road rage incidents have increased 30% since 2010 and the time of year doesn’t seem to matter. In fact, the holiday season is ripe with frustrated and angry drivers so your chances of running into one is very much a reality. In general, fear of encountering or being injured by an enraged driver is a top concern of most drivers throughout the year. Although tougher laws exist for drunk drivers, the legal system has not yet made similar progress relative to drivers who use their vehicles to vent their anger. But the distinction is clear – road rage is a criminal act while aggressive driving is a traffic offense.
The frightening thing about road rage is that any of us can become the victim – we can become the enraged driver or we can become the target. Road rage comes in many forms; blocking other drivers, aggressively tailgating, flashing headlights, verbal abuse and obscene gestures are just some examples. In the extreme, drivers have been assaulted with weapons and run over by vehicles. And violent driving has been found in every age group and in both men and women.
People who resort to road rage feel endangered by another driver, such as a car following too closely. They feel vulnerable and threatened, and a natural reaction is to get angry. People can get angry when another driver is expressing his or her own road rage or when another driver breaks traffic rules or shows a lack of courtesy. The other driver is seen as anonymous, or, if one is angry, an enemy, and research shows that we feel freer to show aggression when the enemy is “faceless”.
Know Your Anger
Our society does not generally encourage us to learn how to handle our anger or how to defuse an aggressive situation. We often learn that anger is simply not to be expressed at all and when it is, we view it negatively. (For example, if you have a single angry outburst you might instantly be labeled as someone with “anger issues.”) The problem with this approach is that we don’t learn healthy tools for expressing this natural emotion, and it is difficult to manage an emotion that we know little about.
People who engage in road rage are expressing their anger in a very destructive and sometimes deadly manner show little understanding of the healthy expression of anger. If you truly know your own anger – what triggers it, why and when – you may never be a victim of road rage. Instead, your anger can motivate you to constructively confront the situation that made you angry in a way that doesn’t harm anyone. Once you understand the triggers to your anger, you can choose to think differently about them.
You may, for example, decide that there are some things that are just not worth getting angry about, and you can choose to avoid situations that can provoke your anger. And you can learn to express your thoughts and feelings effectively when you’re angry and just like you don’t drink and drive, you won’t drive when you are angry. Here are some ways to manger your anger that can work on and off the road.
Change Your Thinking
Our attitude toward a situation influences whether or not we allow our anger to be triggered. We sometimes have automatic hostile thoughts when we confront a threatening situation. “That driver deliberately cut me off!” A thought like this is probably untrue. The other driver may be clueless or absorbed in their own thoughts. So, rather than getting angry based on a false assumption, take a moment to questions your anger-producing thoughts. If you can change your thinking about the situation, you can change your response.
Ask yourself whether this situation is important enough to get angry about. For example: Is it going to make any difference a half hour from now? Or a month or a year from now? Can I try to understand what is really going on? Do I really need to get angry just because one driver is doing something they should not do? Is it more important for me to right or to be healthy and alive? Am I taking something personally when it has nothing to do with me and everything to do with the other driver who is a rude or stressed or ill or unaware driver?
If you really feel your anger can help change an uncomfortable situation, then look for rational and effective solutions to the problem. Most of the time, however, venting your anger without examining the situation merely increases the likelihood of you getting angrier, endangering your health, damaging your relationship with other people and if it occurs while you are driving, having an accident.
If your anger cannot change the situation, try to change your thinking about it. Then, to combat lingering anger that you may still be feeling, distract yourself with pleasant thoughts unrelated to the situation. For example, think about a happy moment from the past day or two. Or think about something positive that you are looking forward to.
Take Time to Calm Down
One reason anger experienced while driving is so dangerous is because it is difficult on the road to take the time to cool off. So if at all possible do not drive when you are angry. A fight at home or at work may not be your fault but getting behind wheel before you cool off can put you and others in harm’s way.
A certain amount of tension always accompanies driving, and this is helpful because it keeps us alert. But this arousal can also set us up for anger, and it can prolong anger which is already present. When you get angry while driving, there are effective ways that you can calm yourself down.
Temporarily withdraw from the situation. Find a place to pull over and park your car. You may even want to get out of the car and walk around. Notice interesting things around you. Change your thoughts. Ask yourself some questions like those given above: Is it more important for me to right or to be healthy and alive? Am I taking something personally when it has nothing to do with me and everything to do with the other driver who is a rude or stressed or ill or unaware driver?
Do a deep breathing exercise. Deep breathing is one of the most effective ways to calm down quickly. Whether or not you can pull over, you can take ten slow, deep breaths. This reduces the arousal that accompanies anger and gives you time to think differently about the situation.
Exercise your body. When anger takes over while you are driving, if it is at all possible, park your car and try to engage in some immediate vigorous exercise. Pacing back and forth or taking a brisk walk or doing ten or twenty jumping jacks or push-ups or squats may just do the trick!
Use some humor. It is hard to be angry when you are laughing. Try to find some humor in the situation you are in, like imagining the person you are angry with in a clown suit. Use you cell phone to search for some jokes (maybe about bad drivers) and read enough of them until you can begin to laugh.
Practice Empathy and Let Go of Anger
Anger tends to cut us off from people. We sometimes see others as the enemy and feel that we have to overcome the threat that they pose. To stop doing this, make up a story about the other driver. Maybe you were cut off because they were rushing to the hospital or trying to get home to a sick child or they were late for a wedding. Perhaps the other driver flashed their lights at you because they couldn’t see you in the dark. Even if the story you make up is not true your body will react as if it is.
The important point here is that we all have the capacity to care for someone else and to be helpful. Rather than trying to prevent or interfere with what the other driver is doing, try instead to cooperate with them. Give them the space that they need to do what they have to do. Forgive the other driver. Your cooperation will make the situation safer for everyone.
Whether we are on or off the road, anger is perhaps our most powerful emotion. It can cause us the most difficulty in our relationships at home, work and in the community and it has a powerful effect on our physical health. Deflecting our hostility and developing healthy alternatives takes considerable understanding and practice. Through the help of a trained therapist we can come to know our anger, what it means in our lives, and how it can help us to live better.
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