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What happens if we drive stressed

Stress is a widespread problem in our society. The figures prove it. According to data from the 360º Wellbeing Survey 2019 annual report by Cigna Corporation, “71% of Spaniards admit to suffering from this problem regularly”.

Work is one of the main factors responsible for the appearance of stress, but it is not the only one, since there are also family responsibilities, social commitments or the car. And depending on the situation, driving can cause moments of significant stress that, in turn, can lead to traffic accidents that endanger people’s physical and mental integrity.

“Traffic jams, weather conditions (rainy, foggy, sunny or snowy days), driving at night, with children, over bridges or tunnels or on highways or motorways are the situations that produce the most stress while driving”, according to reports Cristina Rojas, creator of the Drive Your Emotions method, with which she helps drivers deal with any traffic situation. 

As stated in the document Other risk factors: stress, from the General Directorate of Traffic, “various studies have shown that many drivers who have suffered an accident had happened in the previous months or were going through some particularly stressful life situation”.

The severity of the accidents. “The probability of suffering an accident is greater the more intense the stress experienced, the more stressful situations occur or, the less time has elapsed since them.

What happens if we drive stressed?

Stress “is a rapid response mechanism that activates our body and helps us cope with daily demands,” Rojas reports. The problem is “stress is negative, either because we perceive that we do not have the necessary resources to deal with a situation or because of a situation that overwhelms us”. 

Based on this explanation, according to the expert,” stressed driving can reduce our attention to driving .” Thus, she explains, under a state of high stress, “you can stop paying attention to information and important signals in driving or stop paying excessive attention to another stimulus of less relevance but perceived as threatening by the driver.” In addition, with stress, “more errors and infractions” are made. 

On the other hand, “a driver with a high level of stress could respond aggressively towards other road users or with more reckless driving”, and, in the most extreme cases, “the exaggerated perception of the unpleasant symptoms that accompany stress can lead to a panic attack or anxiety while driving”, he emphasises. 

Do you get stressed behind the wheel?

Due to all these risks, knowing how to identify stressful situations is key to acting and preventing them from affecting the way you drive. However, not everyone is aware that they are experiencing stress behind the wheel and consider thoughts and attitudes that are not normal. 

To know how to identify the signs, Rojas mentions a series of widespread assumptions that are usually associated with driving under stress.

Thoughts such as “any day I’ll have an accident”, “others are driving worse and worse”, “the rest of the drivers are rude”, or “I’m not going to arrive on time, and they’re going to fire me” are catastrophic, aggressive or worrying thoughts” that show that something is not going well”, details the expert. 

Other behaviours such as “going through steady yellow lights almost red to save a few minutes, becoming impatient with drivers who are going at a slower pace or reacting a little more precisely to an unforeseen event (sudden braking)” are also indicators of stress.

But sometimes, stress doesn’t appear as thoughts or feelings but as physical symptoms. For example, “Am I changing my posture? Do I notice tension in any part of my body, or are there changes in my breathing rate?” Asks the expert if so, you have stress.

And it is that, as he comments, “due to stress, tension can accumulate in different parts of the body such as the neck, arms and sword, among others .”

In addition, “if you hold your breath unconsciously, yawning and sighing may appear; and if you breathe quickly and shallowly, you could get dizzy or hyperventilate .” 

Tips to avoid it 

To deal with this type of behaviour, the first thing to do is to see if they are related to traffic or “if they are caused by other factors that have nothing to do with it, such as family or work,” explains Rojas. After this, “it is important to realise how stress manifests itself and what kind of symptoms appear in our body”. 

Here the expert recalls that it manifests itself in different ways and with various symptoms:

  • Physical: increased muscle tension, shallow and rapid breathing, elevated pulse, dizziness, cold hands and feet, dry mouth, upset stomach, diarrhoea, weight changes, and decreased libido. 
  • Cognitive: Difficulty sustaining attention, tendency to make more mistakes, decreased memory and increased worry. 
  • Behavioural: aggressive behaviour, insomnia, increased consumption of alcohol, tobacco or drugs and lack of motivation. 

As many stressful situations are challenging to avoid, the General Directorate of Traffic points out that the most important thing is to try to improve strategies to deal with them and advises “avoid driving as much as possible and seek specialised help to shorten the duration of periods of stress, reduce its intensity and manage to prevent its future appearance”. 

But if you have no choice but to continue using the car, it is best to follow a series of tips to prevent or reduce physical and mental reactions: 

  • Learn to manage time. 
  • Increase our emotional intelligence. Know how to identify our emotions, learn to regulate them, and practice empathy with other drivers and pedestrians.  
  •  Build wellness rituals. After a stressful situation, a recovery period is necessary. “We live so fast that we cannot dedicate time and care to ourselves.” That is why you should practise some activities such as reading, getting a massage or going out with friends.  
  •  Perform physical exercise. “It benefits our body and helps to clear the mind.”
  •  Eat a varied and healthy diet. It is essential to stay hydrated and eat light meals when driving. “If you don’t eat enough, you won’t have the energy to maintain the attention that driving requires, and if you overeat, part of your energy will be concentrated on digestion.
  • Getting up with enough time and not just at the right time to calmly face any unforeseen event on the way to work”. Also, “sleep the necessary hours, avoid the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, other drugs or medications, take special care with stimulants such as coffee or tea, listen to relaxing music in the car and maintain a healthy lifestyle.” 

Before a trip, it is advisable to leave with enough time to face unforeseen events, rest as many times as necessary and not set a set arrival time.

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