Check yourself before you wreck yourself

In the Portlandia sketch “No you go,” two drivers enter a (mostly) friendly standoff at a residential intersection as they eat takeout, sunbathe, read the newspaper and wash the car while waiting on the other to pass through the intersection first.

This send-up of Portland's devil-may-care drivers makes for entertaining TV, but it's not really how things roll in a city where drivers spend an average of 44 hours (that's almost two days) each year stuck in traffic, according to a 2011 study. While Portland has a lower incidence of road rage than other cities and has been named one of the five most courteous driving cities, it's also a city whose motorists are among the most frustrated behind the wheel.

Driving – especially during rush hour – can drive a person nearly crazy. “It's one of the top three most stressful things people experience in their daily lives,” says James Mol, Ph.D., psychologist and director of Behavioral Health Professional Services for Providence. And the emotional baggage we cram into our vehicles – whether it's hustling to a job we're desperate to keep, leaving the scene of a relationship row or racing to drop off children at school – can unfairly stack the deck against our better selves, pushing us to react with an irate honk of the horn or a flash of that villainous finger.

“Stress is related to the fight-flight response,” Mol says. “We're evolutionary animals who centuries ago used stress to get away from tigers and catch up with smaller animals so we could eat and survive.” In spite of those reactions being built into our natures, Mol says “those kinds of instinctual, physiological reactions … can go really awry if we don't pay attention to them.”

Born and raised in Portland, Mol has lived – and commuted – in major cities nationwide, including Boston and San Francisco. He is admittedly a split personality on the road: part-time passive driver and part-time curmudgeon, put off by seemingly inexplicable delays.

“To me, the worst part is when you're stuck and you know, even if you can see an end in sight, it's going to take you 15 or 20 minutes to get from A to B just because there are too many people between you and your destination,” he said. “It can be especially frustrating … when you feel like you're trapped.”

So how can you avoid going from an emotional zero to 60 and erupting in anger at someone who's slow to merge or quick to cut in? Mol offers these tips for a saner – and safer – drive time.

  1. Travel in good company. “Be in the car with someone you enjoy,” says Mol, who back in California commuted with his wife on Fridays. For maximum efficiency, they drove separately Monday through Thursday from Oakland to San Francisco – a commute they had for five years. But on Fridays, they'd go together for a change of pace. “Even though it was a little less efficient, we'd look forward to it, and be able to talk, plan our weekends, talk about chores.”
  2. Listen more, talk less. Tune into talk radio, plug in your iPod shuffle or hit play on your favorite audio book. Mol says there are big benefits to doing something you enjoy (rocking out or getting your Steinbeck on) while doing something you don't enjoy (crawling through your commute); it helps you feel more in control.
  3. Take the high road. If someone cuts you off – or flips you off – batten down your emotional hatches and don't engage. “Observing someone being really aggressive and obnoxious can bring out our own aggressive and obnoxious behavior,” Mol says. He recommends avoiding this kind of social contagion by pausing when agitated and asking yourself: “Do I send a nonverbal gesture here? Will it make me feel better or bring me down?” By keeping your finger or choice words to yourself, you'll defuse an otherwise ugly chain reaction of bad feeling and bad moods. Your blood pressure will thank you, too.
  4. Keep it on the down low. If you find your finger twitching when someone cuts you off or your mouth curling into a familiar and nasty refrain when the driver ahead of you is going 30 mph in a 40 mph zone, Mol says it's not unreasonable to want to express yourself. He suggests that you do it behind closed doors, so to speak – under the dash or under your breath, or away from view of passers-by. “It may make the driver feel better, and it doesn't pollute the environment,” he says. It's important to keep it on the down low, he says, so as to avoid the possibility of escalating the situation. “You do need to be thoughtful in terms of your own safety,” he says.
  5. Take a pass on the passive-aggressive. A driver honks at you for an offense, and you wave like the queen. Someone cuts you off and you decide to calmly pass them, get in their lane and slow down in front of them; it's a calculated move meant to look oblivious. Mol says this is no less hostile – or dangerous – than an in-your-face driver waving a fist maniacally through the window. “A smart-alecky response to a horn honk can end up in firearms or fisticuffs,” he says.
  6. Practice good self-care. Are you rested? Have you eaten? Are you hydrated? Have you considered something as simple as breathing? “People who pay attention to their breathing are less likely to fly off the handle or experience road rage contagion,” Mol says. “Drawing attention to our breathing can be beneficial. It helps us be aware of something happening in the present moment, and it draws us away from our focus on intense frustration – and helps us pause to think about how we react when stressed.”

If getting in the car is too big a gamble for your mental health, consider these transportation alternatives:

Walk. It's the “golden path to getting around,” Mol says. If you don't have far to travel, or you have the time to go the distance on foot, do it. It's good for your physical and mental health.

Bike. Like the unofficial motto of the post office, “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” can keep cyclists from delivering themselves to their destination. What can get in the way, however, is the impatience between drivers and cyclists. “I think Portland is a pretty nice place in that, for the most part, people get along,” Mol says, adding that there's still palpable tension that sometimes erupts in anger. He knows; a bicyclist once smashed the grill of his Volvo after he accidentally drove into the crosswalk, and the cyclist had to swerve to avoid him. Mol was apologetic, but the cyclist took it as an affront. “Road rage between drivers and bikers is a really common phenomenon,” he says.

Take public transportation. “Some public transportation users experience less stress than drivers – particularly those who can use the time to read or otherwise productively multitask,” Mol says. The downside, however, is unpredictability. Traveling on someone else's schedule or riding alongside disruptive or rude passengers can add tension to an otherwise tame commute.

For Mol, the most important part of driving – and perhaps the hardest to achieve – is mindfulness. “If a person can be more reflective, insightful, self-observing and enlightened – ‘I do this for an important reason, do an important job to take care of my family,’” the drive – whether commute to work, trip to grocery store or weekend road trip – can become less painful and more purposeful. “Stress can decrease the length of our lives, and how we manage it can increase our lives – and improve quality of life. It makes sense to really think about how you're going to manage and cope with it the best you can.”