You are driving to work and everything is moving along until … it's wall-to-wall tail lights around the Golden Glades Interchange. Everything grinds to a halt and it's all brake pedals for the next hour.
Time ticks away, your blood begins to boil, you start to sweat, and your heart starts to pound. You try to channel your inner Gandhi but you already know you’ll be arriving late to your 9 a.m. meeting.
Whether in Miami, Atlanta, or Los Angeles, people all over this county can relate. Many assume that it is just an aggravating fact of life in the big city. But the reality is that it does affect both your mental and physical health.
Based on patients' feedback, research that’s been done on the topic, and her own personal experience, Dr. Elizabeth Perkins, a psychiatry resident with the University of Miami Health System, agrees that traffic does have a negative impact on mental well-being.
“We don’t even need to be a driver – studies have shown that just the sound of traffic is associated with poor mental health,” she says.
Traffic stress doesn’t go away once you park the car. Many of Dr. Perkins' patients have reported increased irritability at their home and work environments due to it. And, those who already have mental illnesses may be more at risk.
“Anecdotally, I find that people who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are very sensitive to traffic-induced stress,” she says. “People who suffer from PTSD are also more likely to interpret a neutral stimulus as threatening. So, for example, they may experience higher stress when being cut off in traffic compared to people who do not suffer from PTSD.”
Why do we feel road rage?
Studies have shown that there are two common causes for road rage – a perception of not being in control and that the other drivers on the road are “faceless.” Because you cannot see that driver who just cut you off, you may project whatever feelings you want on to that driver, says Dr. Perkins.
“While we are cursing that jerk for not waiting their turn at a stop sign, they may actually be wincing with embarrassment that they didn’t see you and apologizing [out of sight] in their own vehicle,” she adds.
The effects of traffic stress aren’t just limited to mental health. People who experience chronic stress, even from traffic, are more prone to illness due to its effect on the immune system. And, while the link between stress and cardiovascular disease is not clear, the American Heart Association says “stress may affect behaviors and factors that increase heart disease risk: high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, smoking, physical inactivity, and overeating.”
Take control of the wheel
We can’t just all quit our jobs and become hermits just to avoid driving. How do we protect ourselves from traffic stress?
- Consider taking public transportation, walking, biking, or a ride-sharing service to work.
- Change your perspective. Turn your car into a private oasis. Instead your drive being a stressful time-suck, think of it as a welcome respite from your busy day. Listen to soothing music, a podcast, or an engrossing audible book.
- Minimize your traffic time. Look into options like leaving the house earlier to avoid the rush. Talk to your boss about coming in and leaving later, or look for another job closer to where you live.
- If you find traffic to be unbearable, you may have an underlying mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety, that is making you sensitive to traffic stress. This needs to be addressed by a mental health expert such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, who may be able to get you accommodations to work from home.
Sharing the open road
Finally, don't get caught up in the little things. Remember that while you cannot change the behavior of others, you can change your own, says Dr. Perkins.
“If someone cuts you off, or doesn’t wait their turn at a stop sign, let it go,” she says. “Rather than getting angry, stop to consider the other person - maybe they didn’t see you, maybe they are distracted by their own stressful day, or perhaps they suffer from a mental disorder. By practicing compassion, we decrease our own stress levels.”
Natasha Bright is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News. Her writing has also been featured on the Huffington Post and Scary Mommy websites.