Next time we’re in a car, let us observe. Imagine we were extraterrestrial social behaviourists. What conclusions would we draw about earthlings?
They are unlikely to be good. If there is one area of daily human activity that indicates what demons lurk beneath our social façade, if there is any time that we can learn more about who we are and what motivates us, it is behind the wheel. More than this, if we manage to transform driving into an experience where we grow emotionally we will be in the tiny minority of human beings who are likely to achieve the degree of self-mastery that promotes longevity.
“I decided to observe my reactions when I was late and in a traffic jam,” said Adam who had been diagnosed with a heart murmur. “I was gripping the wheel and my back was tense, my eyes wide-open and staring and my hands clammy. My jaw was set and my neck was stiff. I realised my heart was pounding. For someone with my condition it couldn’t have been worse.”
Driving is a health risk, due to two factors – noise and stress. Noise activates the stress hormones and increases blood pressure. Exposure to chronic noise – true for all city-dwellers – has been linked to cardio-vascular disease. Add to this the stress of driving and you have a powerful, toxic cocktail.
There can be fewer human activities that involve so many stressful factors at once. These include :
• Aggressive driving by other road users
• Being constantly on alert due to the unpredictability of driving
• Visual overload with traffic signs and road works
• Congestion and – conversely – having to restrict speed on an open, traffic-free road
• Noticing the faults of others, such as failure to put on lights, texting while driving or illegal overtaking
• Negotiating badly parked vehicles
• Avoiding jaywalkers
• Believing the lights are against us
Some of the emotions that surge up in us when we are driving are :
• Feeling trapped, when we desire to move forward and can’t
• Frustration at driving a vehicle designed to move far faster than the speed limit
• Loss of control in traffic jams
• Fear our beloved cars will be damaged – leading to resentment, rage, helplessness, bad moods and depression
All these emotions can lead to an almost insuppressible urge to vent our anger. In most social situations the immediate consequences of an explosion of rage are enough to dampen our resolve but in a car we feel protected. Cars are linked to social status and are seen as an extension of ourselves. Feeling constantly attacked by other drivers engenders a sense of invaded territory and defensive, war-like posturing.
Although releasing stress in this way provides temporary relief, repeated anger takes its toll on the heart and the immune system. Experiencing an adrenaline rush but having to remain immobile puts massive strain on the body. We are forced to remain passive when every fibre in our body is telling us to get up and fight. If we drive every day and allow the experience to take over our emotions, sickness is a very real possible consequence. Moreover, getting used to relinquishing emotional control is likely to lower our barriers in other situations, until it becomes a habit outside the car too.
Being able to exercise emotional control in a situation where tempers are flaring and which is characterised by extreme unpredictability is a skill that will serve us well in any situation. Being able to take a step back and observe that little group of fellow humans – with whom we might otherwise have a very civilised conversation if we were having dinner with them – is taking control. To do so involves two things :
1. Overriding our instincts
2. Breaking out of the road’s hypnotic grip
Overriding our instincts can be achieved by active self-observation. Like Adam above, we begin by thinking, my body is experiencing the emotions of rage and frustration. But I am in control of my body. This all-important psychological breakthrough will allow us to step to one side and see the situation for what it is. One person in the hive mind can achieve a shift of vibration that will reverberate throughout an entire tail-back. Thinking, I will not allow myself to be influenced by this group negativity is the mark of a genius who not only values social harmony but also deeply values the preservation of his or her health.
Breaking out of the hypnotic grip of the road can be achieved by one simple step – smiling and making conciliatory gestures to other drivers. If a fellow driver receiving the gesture is lost in the fog of road rage it is unlikely that he or she will smile back, but there is a 90% probability our smile will have an calming effect on them. Playing soothing music and using congestion to daydream about something pleasant are also excellent tactics for shifting from negative to positive.
“Stupid cow,” said Brendon, as a smiling woman shrugged an apology and waved a thank you to him as she pulled out in front. But afterwards, Brian’s conversation turned away immediately from the horrors of the road and he began to talk about summer holidays.
It always works. Let us try controlling the hypnosis on the road tomorrow. We will be amazed at our power.