It’s been a really great day, you think to yourself—when all of a sudden some asshole in a yellow SUV comes veering into your lane. You have no choice but to slam on the brakes, causing your well-deserved, post-work french fries to go flying. Those fries—now devastatingly strewn across the passenger seat—were the only thing you were looking forward to after a 10-hour day and God damnit, A54-3527 is to blame.
After some aggressive honking and bird-flipping, you slow down just enough to make sure he can read your lips. The expletives are endless and you’re really ripping SUV guy a new one. As you collect yourself and apologize to your concerned friend on speakerphone, she tells you to stop acting like Andy Bernard from The Office—before he took those anger management classes.
“It’s just road rage,” you reassure her.
Is road rage normal?
Anger is a normal part of the human experience. “Road rage” is a term that’s been popularized to describe the anger that occurs specifically when driving.
Pretty much everyone has experienced a little anger behind the wheel: Nearly 80 percent of drivers expressed significant anger, aggression, or road rage at least once in the past year, according to a 2016 study by the American Automobile Association (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety.
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Stan Steindl, clinical psychologist and adjunct associate professor at the University of Queensland says that road rage emerges from two main processes: threat and drive (no, not driving a car). Both were vital components of prehistoric humans’ ability to survive.
“Threats like unexpected moves by other drivers, being cut off, or having to brake suddenly can trigger a fight/flight response,” he says. “Given you can’t really run away, you fight.”
Steindl describes the drive system as our natural motivation to obtain, achieve, and succeed. “When someone slows us down, blocks us, or obstructs us in some way, we tend to respond with anger with a determination to push through,” he says.
But I’m the good driver…
Yeah, two-thirds of American drivers also think they’re good drivers. According to an Allstate survey in 2011, drivers rank themselves well above other drivers on the road, in terms of driver knowledge, ability, and safety. The positive ratings drivers gave themselves were more than two times as high as the rating they gave to their own close friends.
Blaming others in the heat of the moment tends to increase anger-evoking thoughts like “you nearly killed me!” or “you terrible driver, get out of my way,” Steindl says.
The privacy of being in our own car grants us a certain type of anonymity which also exacerbates the actions we take when we’re angry—specifically, the profanities that tend to spill out of our mouths in a traffic jam.
“When people feel anonymous, they no longer have the internal social self-checks of self-consciousness, embarrassment, guilt, or shame that would ordinarily rein in [this type of] behavior,” he says.
OK, but is road rage unhealthy?
Angry outbursts on or off the road may not be great for you: It’s possible that they could actually trigger a heart attack or stroke in the hours afterward, according to a 2014 research review from the Harvard School of Public Health. The authors speculate that the link between angry outbursts and cardiovascular problems comes from the tendency of psychological stress to increase heart rate and blood pressure. Such changes in blood flow could cause fatty buildup in blood vessels called plaques to loosen, leading to dangerous blood clots in the heart or brain.
The frequency of rage outbursts as well as any history of previous heart conditions both come into play when considering your cardiovascular risk. The authors of the 2014 study determined that, among people with a low cardiovascular risk, two episodes of anger a day could result in around 63 extra “cardiovascular events” per 10,000 people per year. In people with a higher baseline risk of heart problems, having two angry episodes per day could result in around 268 extra heart attacks and strokes per 10,000 people annually.
One of the more alarming findings of the AAA study is that about 8 million US drivers had engaged in extreme examples of road rage in the past year, including purposefully ramming another vehicle or getting out of the car to confront another driver. Taking these actions could lead to things getting extra dangerous: Sadly, people do die from rage-induced crashes and following fights involving guns or other weapons.
What sets a “normal” road rage experience apart from a dangerous one?
“Higher levels of anger can produce increased risk-taking, more impulsivity, and therefore greater likelihood of miscalculations and accidents,” Steindl says. “Even higher levels of anger can produce aggression and violent urges that lead to verbal and sometimes physical abuse.”
But just because you’re not hanging out the window of your car doesn’t necessarily mean your road rage is under control. There are also subtler warning signs of unhealthy road rage.
“When the anger is frequent or persistent, when it generates feelings of hostility, and when it is consistently expressed as aggression, then it is wise to take action to manage anger differently and more effectively,” he says.
If I know someone like this and want to help calm them down, what can I do?
It’s no secret that telling someone to “calm down” while they’re mid-rage backfires more often than not. Clearly, timing is super important when it comes to expressing your concerns. You might even ask permission to bring it up to your friend, Steindl suggests.
One of the most significant influencers of anger is accumulated stress. “The more stress that one is under in their lives generally, the more likely they are to experience anger and express it while driving,” he says. “As such, an important part of managing driving anger is managing stress more generally.”
Steindl suggests strategies to create a sense of soothing in the mind and body. Each person is different, but slow breathing techniques, calming music, and changing driving routes are all possible solutions.
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