Driving Yourself to an Early Grave? How to Cope with the Stress of Driving

Neil Overy
Sep 26 · 6 min read
Alex Powell (Pexels.com)

According to data from the AAA’s American Driving Survey (2017), the average American spends 51 minutes of every day behind the wheel. This means that in a typical year, your average American driver will spend over 18 000 minutes, or 310 hours, or 13 days behind the wheel.

That’s 51 minutes of every day doing one of the most stressful things that you can do in the course of a typical day. Of course, we’ve known for years that driving causes stress, but it’s only relatively recently that we’ve realized just how bad the stress of driving can be, and how this stress negatively impacts our health.

Research from all over the world shows how the stresses of driving increases heart rate, ups blood pressure, leads to rises in blood sugar levels, increases the risk of depression and anxiety, and is associated with a whole range of specific physical problems such as higher levels of cholesterol and back and neck complaints. The longer the commute the worse it gets, with research showing that cardiovascular fitness and quality of sleep drops in direct proportion to the amount of time you spend behind the wheel every day.

These risks are, of course, closely correlated with illnesses that result in more sick leave being taken, and more regular trips to health care professionals. Which, in turn, leads to increased stresses at home and at work.


But just why is driving so stressful? There are, of course, numerous reasons why many of us find driving stressful, but chief among them is the fact that most of us don’t, and frankly can’t, really adhere to the rules imposed by traffic systems. These systems are set-up to work cooperatively for an idealized driver who drives on idealized roads. This idealized driver is entirely virtuous and obeys all the rules of road and never allows anything unrelated to driving to distract them. They also drive on perfectly designed, congestion free roads which are in impeccable condition all the time. And, let’s not forget that in this idealized system all other road-users, pedestrians, cyclists etc. all act flawlessly as well.

But as we all know, driving’s not like this at all. The dad is front is not really concentrating because one of his kids has just puked on his brother; that young woman pulling alongside is on her cell phone arranging a night out; that truck driver tailgating you is late for a delivery for which his boss will have his arse; those cyclists are riding side-by-side and that kid on his skateboard is heading straight for you! And don’t forget to dodge the potholes, avoid the roadworks, re-route around the congestion as best you can, and negotiate that poorly designed junction with crappy visibility!

Often when we drive it feels more like chaos than order. Is it any wonder then that we are so stressed doing it? That we shout at each other, flick the bird at will and blast our horns or flash our lights so often? That some even find themselves stepping out of their cars to vent their frustration on fellow drivers?

Much of this aggression comes from the unpredictability of other drivers and the fact that we feel so out of control when we drive. This is because many of the social cues we use to negotiate our way in the world as pedestrians are just not available when we drive. We simply can’t accurately predict what the people in the cars around us are actually going to do.

Research also shows that another problem is that we tend to perceive ourselves to be good and virtuous drivers, even when we are not — partly because we all have our own ideas about what constitutes ‘good driving’. This leads to us to refusing to allow drivers who we feel are ignoring or bending the rules (not driving well according to our subjective assessments) to re-join the company of the self-defined virtuous. You know what this is like — that guy who ignored the sign indicating that the lanes were merging and barrelled happily past you earlier — you aren’t letting him in now are you?

JESHOOTS.com (Pexels.com)

Given this chaotic world which we are drawn into when we get behind the wheel, it’s no wonder that so many of us experience stress while driving. So what can we do about it? Frankly we have to make the best of an imperfect situation.

Here’s how:

· Be courteous — just because the system is imperfect doesn’t mean that we should abandon basic civilities. We must be as polite as we can with other road-users. Thank the driver who let you into the lane, and then do the same for someone else. Each display of courtesy you perform will make you feel a little more relaxed and at ease behind the wheel.

· Don’t take the bait — maintain your calm around rude and aggressive drivers. Don’t respond to their provocations or gestures. This means getting as quickly and safely as possible out of the way of that driver flashing you from behind because they want to pass. This means not responding in kind to obscene gestures. If you engage with these types of drivers you will not be able to relax yourself.

· Practice mindfulness at the wheel — Live in the moment when you are driving. Don’t focus on the driver who just cut you up, or the junction further down the road you don’t like to navigate. Rather, be present in the moment. You can do this by becoming aware of the texture of the steering wheel; listening carefully to all the sounds you are hearing, and becoming aware of your breathing. This does not, of course, mean shifting your main focus from driving, rather it’s a subtle shift to redirect your inner-thoughts to the present moment.

· Be aware of tension in your body — The stresses and strains of driving can lead to clenched jaws, tightness in the legs and arms and stiffness in the upper back and neck. When you are driving, try to be aware of how your body is feeling, and let go of any tension you may be holding.

· Change the story you tell yourself when you are driving — rather than shouting out, or thinking in your head, ‘Stupid idiot! Where did you learn to drive, you moron?’. Rather think, ‘This guy’s a bad driver, best let him pass’.

· Drive at the speed limit — Spend a week sticking to the speed limit. You’ll realize that it’s a far more relaxing place than the bullying and impatient world that you may have become inured to. Shifting into the ‘slower lane’ can be very liberating.

· Turn off your phone — it’s a distraction you can do without. There’s enough to keep your attention as it is without your phone yelling at you.

· Be comfortable with being late — Sometimes things will happen that will make you late, no matter how hard you try not to be. Rather than speeding to your destination, accept that you will not make it on time.

· Listen to music that calms you — You can help break the patterns of negative thinking while driving by listening to music that has previously had a calming effect on you.

· Use air fresheners — Evidence indicates that certain essential oils, like lavender and jasmine can reduce levels of anxiety. Try it, see if it works for you.

I asked my partner to read what I’ve written above. By the time she got the end of it she was shaking her head at me. ‘You should spend more time practicing what you preach’, she remarked. And, she’s right, I should. As far as managing the stress of driving, I’m a work in progress, but I’m getting better. I’ve not had a speeding fine in three years and I mostly no-longer shout at people out loud. Now I do most of the shouting in my head, and that’s the next part I need to work on!

Invisible Illness

We don't talk enough about mental health.

Neil Overy

Written by

Freelance researcher / writer /photographer. I write about the intersections between health, social justice and environmental issues. See: www.neilovery.com

Invisible Illness

We don't talk enough about mental health.

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