The psychological strain of traveling by car
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07-01-15 Category: Mental Health, Therapy


Whether a person lives in a massive metropolis like Los Angeles or within the secluded area of the San Joaquin Valley, one fact is clear about Californians: they drive a lot. With such a large state, most destinations are spread out and require a longer driving distance. In fact, the average California driver travels 13,636 miles each year, which is approximately 1.5 times higher than the mileage of the average American driver.

While automobiles are designed for optimal comfort and luxury, the interior of a car can also be a setting for extreme, emotional expression. A term for this common phenomenon is “road rage”, which refers to an intense fury of anger that arises from unexpected circumstances while driving. According to a survey conducted by doctors on the topic of road rage, over half of all drivers in the U.S. are familiar with these episodes, as navigating side streets, highways and freeways is a fairly unpredictable experience. One can endure prolonged traffic jams or get cut off by another driver at a moment’s notice.

Along with bouts of rage, driving can be the source of additional, distressing mental conditions. Two of these conditions include a buildup of stress and strain. An analysis by the Institute of Transportation Systems at the German Aerospace Center defines stress as “the total assessable influence impinging upon a human being from external sources and affecting [the person] mentally” and strain as “the immediate effect of mental stress on the individual.” While GPS navigation and other driver-assisting systems are in place, using a car consists of much concentration by the person at the wheel. Also, a surrounding environment of moving cars and changing terrains means that a driver must constantly adapt to new stimuli in order to drive safely. These dynamic demands can eventually take a toll on the driver. In fact, these stressful and straining influences may even fuel expressive outbursts like road rage.

Alleviating automobile anxiety with innovation

A recent accumulation of research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has also contributed knowledge about these vehicular, psychological processes. Kael Greco, project leader at MIT’s SENSEable City Laboratory and his colleagues have repeatedly recorded the biological responses of the human body while driving. In the course of measuring stress levels, the researchers also discovered a lot of useful information regarding roadside pressures. In an interview with CBS, Greco stated that for many, certain driving situations are the most stressful activities in a person’s life. The team even compared the data to other stress-provoking experiences, most notably skydiving out of a plane.

From this data and other baseline comparisons, the research team hopes to develop the first scientific standard for measuring driving-related stress called the Road Frustration Index. Car manufacturers and other vehicle experts can use the tool to evaluate current features and direct future innovation. Especially with the technology of self-driving automobiles soon to be introduced to mass markets, the need for relieving driver stress is at its peak. Another future plan is to expand driving trials to different cities on an international scale. Greco hopes to construct “stress-scapes”, which will detail what roads, pathways and times drivers find most unpleasant. Overall, this can systematically improve daily commutes and long-distance travel.

Another big push in the right direction comes from Tesla motors, one of the leading purveyors of self-driving technologies. Elon Musk, the company’s chief executive stated that Tesla aims to rid the driving world of “range anxiety”. This anxiety is the feeling an individual gets when he or she believes a car will not reach the intended destination and will leave the driver and passengers stranded. Musk declared that with Tesla’s newest downloadable updates, vehicles will be able to find and direct travelers to the nearest charging station. He added, “It makes it impossible to run out of range unintentionally. The car will always take care of you.”

Californians love their cars, but many may not appreciate the underlying stress that comes with them. Sovereign Health Group understands that anxiety can develop due to various life triggers. Some stressors can even arise from daily routines, like driving to or from work, the grocery store or a favorite vacation spot. If you or a loved one suffers from unmanageable anxiety of any sort, contact a Sovereign representative to take the next step to a better life. Chat with a consultant online or call (866) 819-0427 for more information.

Written by Lee Yates, Sovereign Health Group writer

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