In this article, I discuss how to manage your stress and anger behind the wheel.


Estimated reading time: 4 minutes.

As someone who drives to and from work several days a week, I have experienced many challenges in managing stress and anger. Dealing with gridlock when you need to be somewhere by a certain time, encountering drivers who behave in an inconsiderate manner and experiencing car problems are just some of the events which can tax a person’s ability to manage their stress and anger behind the wheel. Being subjected to these events each day can wear on a person to the point of burnout.

Fortunately, there are strategies to manage one’s emotions which can be applied to driving challenges including those I’ve mentioned. I can vouch for the effectiveness of these strategies to the point that commutes can actually be enjoyable if you use them. In the following sections, I will discuss these strategies.

Two categories of strategies: Problem-focused and self-focused

The strategies for managing your emotions while driving fall into the same two categories I use for helping clients manage their emotions in other stressful situations–problem-focused and self-focused. Problem-focused strategies entail taking action to address problems to reduce your stress. In this case, the focus is on problems which contribute to excess stress while driving.

Self-focused strategies involve using skills and activities to manage your emotional reaction to the stressors you encounter while driving. In the next sections, I will discuss several strategies from each category which you can use to manage your emotions when you’re on the road.

Problem-focused strategies for managing your emotions while driving

Problem-focused strategies for managing your emotions while driving entail your taking action to reduce, eliminate and manage problems and stressors which increase your stress. Examples include: Leaving for your destination with plenty of time so you are not unnecessarily worried about being late; planning the best route to follow on your way to your destination; improving your driving skills including practicing how to respond to the actions of other drivers; keeping your vehicle in good condition so you are less likely to encounter problems; having a plan in case you do have vehicle problems; and dealing with ‘off-road’ problems and stressors (such as at work/school and in relationships) so that these are less likely to affect your mood negatively while driving.

Addressing problems and potential stressors–driving and otherwise–will make the task of managing your emotions while driving significantly more achievable.

Self-focused strategies for managing your emotions while driving

Self-focused strategies for managing your emotions while driving help you to keep your cool internally while you are dealing with problems and stressors on the road. These strategies fall into three categories:

(1) Behavioural self-focused strategies—These strategies entail your engaging in enjoyable activities to switch your attention off the stressors and problems you encounter while driving. Listening to music or an audio book and engaging in conversation with passengers fall into this category.

(2) Physical self-focused strategies—These strategies help you to calm the physical tension in your body which accompanies the stress you experience in challenging driving situations. Controlled breathing through your diaphragm is one of several reliable strategies in this category which you can practice and use to keep your body calm while driving.

(3) Cognitive self-focused strategies—These strategies focus on helping you change your thinking from ‘hot thoughts’ which elevate your stress and anger to ‘balanced thoughts’ which lower your emotions to more manageable levels. The key to using cognitive strategies is understanding that hot thoughts are overly negative thoughts which focus exclusively and often inaccurately on negative information.

This includes overly negative views of the behaviour, motives and character of other drivers as well as catastrophizing about the consequences of not having things go according to your expectations of what should happen while driving. If you try to view the situation according to all the available evidence, you can change your hot thoughts to balanced thoughts with a marked reduction in your stress and anger while driving.

For example, the extra stress and anger some drivers experience is the result of their having perfectionistic assumptions such as, “If other drivers don’t drive properly, I won’t be able to enjoy my ride”. If you actually test out assumptions like these, you can usually gather evidence which challenges the validity of these assumptions.

This facilitates change to less stress-inducing assumptions like, “Although there will be times during my ride when other drivers engage in behaviours which might temporarily unsettle me, the evidence indicates that I can still enjoy my ride despite such behaviours.” This then makes it easier for you to ‘roll with it’ when drivers don’t behave according to your expectations on future rides to the point that you can enjoy your commute.

You can also change overly negative thoughts you have about other drivers which drive up your stress and anger. Common ‘hot thoughts’ in this regard include the belief that another driver is behaving inappropriately in a given situation. Examining the evidence often indicates that their behaviour may be different from yours but is not uncommon on the road.

Hot thoughts about other drivers can also be fueled by jumping to conclusions about their character—such as thinking he or she is a ‘jerk’ (or worse!) based on your view of their driving behaviours. At these times, I first remind myself that the behaviour I am viewing as inappropriate may in fact be acceptable according to common driving practice.

Secondly and perhaps more importantly, I tell myself that even if the behaviour is inappropriate based on an objective view of the evidence, it is inaccurate for me to make negative assumptions about the other driver’s character based on such limited information. In these instances, if I tell myself that it is possible that this person may in fact behave in a good manner in other situations and be considered a decent human being, even holding out this possibility helps to reduce the stress and anger I experience in such situations.

As with most pursuits, the more your practice problem-focused and self-focused strategies while driving the better you will get at managing your emotions when you are behind the wheel. A psychologist who is skilled in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you to learn and practice these strategies.

May you use strategies to manage your emotions when you’re behind the wheel,

-Dr. Pat