Driving is not normally known as a route to calming frayed nerves, reducing temper and lowering blood pressure unless you are a rat perhaps – do read on. Driving, in fact, is well known to wind us up and there are plenty of situations that occur on the roads which can send drivers into a total and deadly frenzy.
The first important distinction to make is, does the act of driving itself cause you stress and anxiety? This can affect new drivers and nervous drivers after an accident for example but the simple fact is that some people are less good at driving than others and this can cause them to become stressed when they get behind the wheel of a car.
What kind of things can elevate stress levels for a driver?
We take a look at some of the most common trigger points for an increased heart rate behind the wheel.
- Traffic jams and queues particularly if they are caused by an unnecessary obstruction such as thoughtless parking or someone on the phone and aren’t they always when you really need to be somewhere at a specified time
- Someone driving well below the speed limit for no apparent reason
- A driver pulling out in front of you or suddenly turning off with late or no indication
- A tailgater, another driver hanging onto your rear bumper, driving way too close and trying to intimidate you
- Other drivers’ errors and mistakes can be a source of intense irritation and if you are already in a bad humour or short-tempered, can push a driver over the edge
- Being confronted by an aggressive or angry driver
How to reduce your stress levels
- Always allow plenty of time for your journey. If you leave late then call ahead and explain you will be delayed rather than trying to make up time on the journey
- Try and travel outside peak rush hour
- Plan your route carefully and check whether there are any scheduled delays such as roadworks or unusual issues such as the movement of a wide load
- If you are not experienced in certain conditions such as distinct road types or severe weather then specifically go out and gain that experience or just avoid doing it altogether
- If you are travelling somewhere new, research your parking options carefully before you leave. Driving around endlessly trying to find somewhere to park can cause great frustration and stress
- Don’t drive when you are hungry or short of food as this can make you irritable and can affect concentration levels
- Never drive after an argument or when you are angry – motors and mood are never a good mix
- Avoid listening to music which at best can be distracting and at worst, affect how you drive. Upbeat rock music is well known to encourage people to drive at higher speeds and with more aggression. Some people find calming music helps their mood and stress levels, this is fine providing it doesn’t affect your concentration or make you so relaxed that you start to feel drowsy behind the wheel
- Try not to get behind the wheel when you are angry or stressed, get someone else to drive or change your plans
- Avoid unnecessary distractions such as upsetting or unpleasant news reports on the radio or noisy and raucous passengers. Switch your mobile phone off and put it away out of sight
- Take plenty of breaks if you are travelling on a long journey or if you get caught out and your journey becomes much longer than expected. This means stopping the car and getting out to stretch your legs, taking in some fresh air and having something to eat and drink. This will restore you and refresh you ready for the next stage of your journey
It is perhaps rather ironic that scientists discovered that they could reduce the stress levels in lab rats by teaching them to drive. Are we missing something?
A recent report in the media details how researchers at the American University of Richmond found that stress levels were reduced in rats who were taught to drive small plastic cars using cereal as a reward. The rats could turn their vehicles to the left and right or stay on centre although it did take several months to teach them to do this. And the point of it? To look at developing non medicine based products to combat mental health conditions which, as far as most people are concerned, would probably not include getting behind the wheel of a car. The suggestion was, in fact, the learning of a new skill which assuaged the stress levels in the rats rather than the actual act of driving itself.
But driving can be a great de-stresser if you avoid the daily commute or the school run and you head for open roads in good weather – there is something about that freedom. Perhaps it is just the peace and isolation of the vehicle, that sense of escape from life’s stresses which driving away can really represent. Scientists state that when we are stressed out, some of our more superior brain functions are closed down so actually, driving a regular and familiar route can restrict your higher brain function for a time and close out unwanted or stressful thoughts. This is, in turn, can help clear your head and revive your mood.
There is no doubt that some people enjoy driving more than others and for those who struggle, their stress levels will rise far more quickly. As with stress in any part of our daily lives, its all about management, taking control of the situation and trying to head off those all-important trigger points. Stress behind the wheel of a car can be fatal for both you and other road users.