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Triggered Behind the Wheel: Understanding and Avoiding Road Rage

No matter how safe you drive, you can’t control others, which can be pretty frustrating when you get cut off or tailed while behind the wheel. It’s easy to get triggered, and resorting to anger can be hard to manage.

Flight, Fight, or Freeze

When the body experiences stress or anxiety, it’s trying to prepare you for what it’s going to do in reaction. This part of our brain—the amygdala—helps protect us from danger. Our reaction is instinctual, dating to our ancestors living in the wilderness. They relied on this reaction to help them fight or flee.

However, this response has become less adaptive over time—putting us in sometimes dangerous situations.

“We often see people become a little more offensive rather than defensive in those moments because they’re expecting an attack,” says Amanda McNab, a licensed clinical social worker at Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HMHI) at the University of Utah. “What might look like anger and aggression is actually more of that fight part of our defense mechanism.”

Understanding Anger

When it comes to road rage, anger is often associated. Anger usually stems from underlying stress and psychological factors. Anger can act as an “umbrella” emotion because it can cover or hide other emotions like frustration, fear, sadness, and disappointment. 

“People often feel that they have no control over what’s going on in their lives—whether it comes to family, work, or finances,” McNab says. “So, they’re already kind of up to here with what’s happening, and the anger has been building and building.”

The emotion of anger can also lead to the desire for revenge—a feeling of desire that may lead to emotional release and ultimately help us feel better. However, in the end, it can have potentially devastating results and consequences.

Psychology Factors

Research has found some people are triggered more easily behind the wheel and can drive more aggressively due to psychological factors. Some of these behaviors include people with:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Those with PTSD could be triggered into fearing for their lives and react outwardly. The situation they find themselves in may remind them of a time of extensive fear or danger.
  • Depression. While most people think of depression in people who shut down, can’t sleep or eat, or are sad and hopeless, it can also display as aggressive agitation—the thought of feeling that someone is against them.
  • Bipolar disorder. People with bipolar disorder deal with an overwhelming amount of emotions and agitation and can become easily triggered. During a manic episode, a person deals with an unpredictable change in mood and behavior, which can make them feel overwhelmed, agitated, or have reduced impulse control and stress tolerance.
  • Attention deficit disorder (ADD). A person with ADD takes everything in at one time, making it hard to focus on one thing. Or they can become hyper-focused on things, such as being wronged.

Stress and Anxiety

People dealing with stress or anxiety in their personal life could become easily agitated and have a lower frustration tolerance.

“It’s almost like they’re in overdrive all the time,” McNab says. “If someone were to feel threatened and have the tendency to do more of the fight side of things, we might see an increase in road rage incidents.”

Sometimes, a single event can trigger a person to explode with emotion, especially if they are experiencing stress or anxiety. In response, they often jump to conclusions and respond aggressively.

“When something happens that’s out of our control, it’s important to recognize that we were likely not targeted. Someone may have had a moment of distraction or swerved to avoid something on the side of the road.”
Amanda McNab, LCSW

Practicing self-care in your daily routine can help manage stress. People often tend to carry stress with them all the time and everywhere they go.

McNab says a good rule of thumb is to let it go. Validate your feelings first to honor yourself, and then allow the moment to pass rather than hold on to the feeling and let it fester. Practicing this outside of driving can make it easier to respond to high-stress situations when they arise.

Tips to help control your emotions behind the wheel

  1. Take a breath. Impulse control can be difficult. Taking a deep breath gives a couple extra seconds to provide space between a reaction. “It helps re-engage the part of the brain that can help us think through things in more logical steps and filter out some of the impulse piece of our behavior as human beings,” McNab says. 
  2. Keep distance. Allowing extra space between the car in front of you allows more reaction time. It gives you the opportunity to slow down when someone slams on their brakes or to recognize what’s happening and react before something worse happens.
  3. Be self-aware. Have you ever got to your destination and didn’t remember the drive there? Be aware of your driving skills by focusing on the road and your surroundings. Recognize what’s distracting you and find things that help calm you down. That can include listening to music or rolling down your window for fresh air.
  4. Talk out loud. One of the exercises in defensive driving is saying all the steps you are taking behind the wheel out loud. This can help build awareness and manage stress to get to your destination safely.