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Are you prone to road rage?

How to avoid losing your emotional control when driving and managing other life stressors

Gulf News

Answer these questions honestly: 

1) When someone cuts in ahead of you without warning on the highway, would you start flashing your headlight and tailgating that bad driver at high speed?

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-Nazanin Sadegh Pour | 
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2) If you stop at a traffic light and the motorist behind you starts honking the moment the lights turns green, will that boil your blood making you slow down on purpose to irritate him further?

3) When you are stuck in a traffic jam, do you start to mutter under your breath rather than listen to music or distract yourself in some other way?

4) When a learner’s car is in front of you, driving slow, do you lose your temper and say, these learners should drive in some other part of town?

5) When someone is reversing in front of you and taking a bit longer than usual, do you start a long honk?

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If the answer to these questions is mostly yes, you are a definite candidate for road rage. Of course, there are many bad drivers on the road and the daily commute to work can be stressful but there is a difference between acknolwedging poor driving in someone and going after them with your fuse blown.

Most people display road rage at some point or the other, largely driven by a bad start to the day, some snafu at work or at home or due to generally being irritated on one particular day. But what defines full blown and chronic road rage is when every small incident of poor driving by others leads to a screaming sound in your head.

“Road rage,” says Nazanin Sadegh Pour, psychologist at the Human Relations Institute in Dubai. “is when you lose your emotional control when driving.” It is a situation where a driver reacts explosively and in unpremeditated anger to an incident that is disproportionate to the provocation, she says.

“The reaction does not match with the situation and the driver or a passenger will attempt to injure, kill or intimidate another driver or a pedestrian or damage another vehicle,” she says, summing up a broad definition of road rage.

This outburst of anger is not a momentary impulse which can be easily dismissed. It a highly damaging pattern of behaviour that is not only dangerous to others but also damaging to the invidual who displays it. Road rage is an anger that has the ability to damage your insides, because it is an implosive emotion. “An outburst of road rage throws you off balance, leading to biochemical changes in your body which induces the fight or flight response,” she explains.

The suudden changes that take place are as increased blood flow to your extremities, arms and legs, and a rush of adrenalin that induces the “fight or flight hormone” response, to name two. “These demand an adoptive response from you,” she says.

While adrenalin pumps up your heart rate, raises your blood pressure, another stress hormone, cortisol, is also flushed into your system. It hikes the sugar level in the blood, and stops other functions that you do not need in a fight or flight situation, such as suppressing the digestive system.

If the stress (of road rage in this case) stays with you for long, there are chances of damaging effects to the body. “Long-term stress is said to lead to weight increase, high blood pressure, depression and anxiety.”

The sad part about road rage is that even if you do not act on your anger, it can still do you damage. Even if you start to feel frustrated over the situation on the road, it will have a negative impact on your health, even if you do not act on it. “Managing stress and anger management is the first step to control road rage,” says Pour. “If it is deep-rooted anger that shows up as road rage, than you probably need to work more on yourself to change your reaction and the way you do things,” she says. “When you are driving, flight is not an option, so your main reaction would be to fight,” she says.

Studies show that even people who normally do not get angry easily tend to lose control, especially when driving in congested conditions. Add to that environmental stressors such as noise, pollution, and uncomfortable temperatures, and it can push an individual to an extreme. 

The personality behind the wheel 

What makes road rage more complex is that it is typified by individuals with a certain personality type. For example, Type A personality for instance, who is aggressive, time-urgent, hostile, extremely competitive, will be prone to get into a road rage more easily than others. (There are four personality types: Type A is also controlling. Type B is relaxed and easy-going. Type C is more inward-looking and tries to please everyone, and Type D is very anxious and depressed).

Then there are character traits which add to the problem. Some of us love to seek sensation, we have a tendency to look for excitement to feel alive. And if you are also hostile by nature or a high risk-taker or impatient, it follows that you could also be a reckless driver, says Pour.

“However the redeeming feature about road rage is not all will lash out in anger when frustrated,” she says. “The demonstration of anger depends on the gender and the culture or your upbringing.”

Expressing anger also has many forms. Men, generally speaking, are supposed to be higher risk takers, more competitive, while women do not take as many chances on the road. Men are more likely to be rude and lack self-control behind the wheel, she says.

Also, the responsive patterns of woemn are different due to evolutionary causes. Women respond differently to stress and instead of “fight or flight” approach, they tend to take the “tend and befriend” response. “Women care more for the welfare of others,” she says, which could be reason why they do not take on adverse situations with exaggerated responses. Having said that, she does concede that even women today tend to display severe degrees of road rage. “Inisde a car, behind the wheel, a woman feels equally powerful or as strong (as compared to a man) and can behave as badly,” she says. “The reaction of women while driving in congested areas is now pretty much the same as men.” 

So, how to conquer road rage?

One way to manage anger is through positive self-talk. “Tell yourself why such a thing is happening. Be compassionate. Remind yourself that there are others on the road who are in the same situation. You are not the only one facing it. Ask yourself how it would be if all of them resorted to road rage,” says Pour.

You could also practice breathing exercises. They are the best way to bust stress and what better place to do them than in the confines of a car that seems to be going nowhere in a hurry? “Breathe in through the nose and hold for four counts. And exhale, for eight counts. This will help reduce anxiety generally and can be done when you are tense,” she advises.

There are also other ways to deal with the situation to ensure you do not courst stress with such passion that you are pushed over the edge. “There are basic things, such as time management. If you are in a time rush, you are more likely to react explosively. Make sure you have enough time to reach from Point A to Point B. Take into account how much time it will take to reach your destination.” While traffic is unprediactble, the fact that you have time on your hands makes a big difference when you are in a traffic jam.

Others precautions to take: make sure you are not extremely hungry when driving. Hunger and traffic jam are a terrible combination. Also make sure you have been to the washroom before setting out on a long commute. These are the least you can do, and which are in your control, given that other life stressors (such as work pressures, family stress , money and health issues) are already at work on you, says Pour.

A large marker of how individuals respond to stress and calibrate anger is upbringing. Proper upbringing by parents who set good examples to their children about how to take charge of emotions in stressful situations in life goes a long way in making people grow up to be responsible for their behaviour.

“Teaching children what is appropriate behaviour and what is not” makes them grow up to be more sensible individuals. Lastly, cultural differences play a big role in how people respond to situations. “Some people have a calmer reaction to a stressful situation because in their culture, they are taught to o that,” she says.


Fact Box

10 tips to beat road rage


1) Be compassionate. Realise that there are others also on the road and they too are in the same situation.

2) Take deep breaths. Breathe through the nose and hold for four counts. Exhale slowly for 8 counts. This is a yoga technique and will reduce your tense feeling.

3) Manage your time well. If you are already behind schedule, any delay on the road will stress you out even more. Check out how much time you will need to get to your destination before starting out.

4) Be in control. If you are hungry you may lash out easily. Do not drive when famished. Attend to your basic needs such as going to washroom when starting out on a long commute.

5) Put on a relaxing music tape. Do not listen to aggressive music; that may be good for a workout at the gym, but not when you are facing congested traffic and bad drivers on the road.

6) If you have made a mistake when driving such as cutting in front of another car, wave an apology to the motorist who was affected by your bad driving.

7) When someone is driving badly and zooms past you, do not let it get to you. Ignore that motorist.

8) If someone who has threatened you starts to follow you, do not confront that driver. Call the police.

9) Do not drive slow in the fast lane as it will irritate motorists behind you.

10) Take a coffee break, if driving for long hours, to de-stress.


(Courtesy: Road Transport Authority. Nazanin Sadegh Pour, psychologist at the Human Relations Institute)