We’ve all been there, at the wheel or in the passenger seat. We’re driving along and someone does something inconsiderate that sets off a flare of rage. They roar up beside our car then cut us off, forcing us to slam on the brakes so we don’t hit them. People turn in front of us without signalling. They pass us on a two-lane highway then slow down.
Why do so many people get triggered into a rage response in traffic? It can even turn violent. Most people would never take violent action but you have to admit sometimes we feel like it! Why?
Think of a time you were angry while driving. Bring up the images and notice the response in your body. Does your breathing change? Are you tightening up into a fight stance? Observe the details by staying grounded in witnessing the event in your mind. Do some tapping or tracing if you need to lessen the intensity of your response, otherwise just stay with it as we explore.
We count on other drivers to be awake, paying attention and following safety rules. People are killed all the time by distracted or impaired drivers. We know that is true even if we’re not consciously thinking about it. Our brain spots an unusual behaviour, like someone weaving in their lane, and we notice. Behavior out of the ordinary alerts us to possible danger.
Dangerous driving scares us and we have a spike of fear. Adrenaline and cortisol flood our system. We tense up and look for ways to keep ourselves safe.
A surprise threat provokes a stronger response than something we’re expecting. I was driving along minding my own business when this jerk … It reinforces the belief that we’re never really safe. This heightened anxiety also intensifies our fear response.
Sometimes it’s not a danger but it’s someone sneaking ahead in line. Everyone else is taking turns at a merge but there’s this one person who sails along and cuts in at the last minute. We’re frustrated enough that we’ve been delayed in traffic. No way we’re letting them in and we’re angry with that person in front who always does. Not fair!
We feel a bit invincible surrounded by metal and able to drive 70 miles an hour. We’re adults. We enjoy the power to take ourselves places. We have agency. When someone cuts us off, it can trigger a feeling of powerlessness. Then fear. Then rage. We’re not letting them get away with that!
What does that incident reflect back about you? We work a lot with core deficiency beliefs and an over-the-top reaction can be due to it landing hard on a belief. I don’t matter. I don’t count. I’m not seen. That idiot is acting like the road is all his. He doesn’t even know I’m here! It triggers feelings that we are in danger and they don’t even see us, let alone care. It feels like a survival level threat.
We attribute such negative qualities to people who make us angry while we’re driving. The person who is weaving in their lane might be drunk or texting. Maybe they are a new driver and they’re nervous. They might be exhausted from being up all night with a crying baby or they are driving home from the hospital where someone they love died.
That person weaving in and out of traffic and speeding might be trying to get a woman in labor to the hospital. I saw that once in stop-and-go traffic on the highway coming from the mountains into Calgary. A convertible jeep was driving on the shoulder and as they passed, I could see a very pregnant woman panting as her partner held her shoulders. Our irritation that someone isn’t playing by the rules dissolves when we know the reason.
Driving in a rage isn’t safe. When people are triggered, they are emotionally flooded. Their pre-frontal cortex goes off line and it takes about twenty minutes for the adrenaline and cortisol to settle out of their system. That’s dangerous for everyone.
Working with this in ourselves is advanced practice and it can yield amazing results. Driving becomes so much more enjoyable and safer for us, for the other people in our vehicle, and for everyone on the road with us. It can be a simple reminder to ourselves to stay present and grounded in our body. Hands relaxed on the wheel. Feeling the support of the seat. Relax our shoulders. Breathe.
We can work with an angry mental rant the same way as we challenge other forms of compulsive and catastrophic thinking. We don’t have to entertain these thoughts and give them energy. We can calm ourselves and over time this will help. Don’t shame yourself for your response to threat. Just work with it.
If this is something that’s an ongoing issue for you, some inquiry would help, both on the spot and after. What does this reflect back about you? What bugs you so much about it? Does it remind you of earlier times in your life when you were afraid or felt powerless?
What are some alternate explanations for the person’s behaviour? Are you sure they are a jerk or are there other possibilities? The person trying to merge might be from out of town and they didn’t realize the lane was ending. More likely they are the type of person who skips to the front of the line. Either way, what is the impact of your response on you? Is that what you want?
Like any mindfulness practice, once we see clearly it is hard to continue in the old pattern. Give yourself a break and be kind with yourself. Our responses to survival level threats are there for a reason. They may not be the most functional and this is workable. Relax your shoulders. Take a deep breath. Remind yourself this is advanced practice and be patient with yourself. You will experience a whole new relationship with driving.