How to Mindfully Temper Road Rage and Make Driving Less Stressful

“Smile, breathe, and go slowly.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

As a Lyft driver, I once spent significant time out on the road—a setting rife with provocations and stressors.

It can be difficult to maintain mindfulness while driving. This is because it forces you to resist negative emotions such as impatience or frustration. Meditation can be difficult to practice when you’re navigating a vehicle (demanding as both activities are of your full attention)—try channeling all your senses into it, and you’ll likely plow over a pedestrian or end with your car in a ditch.

Navigating the road mindfully, though, doesn’t have to mean closing your eyes or adopting any of the other classic “meditative” stances. I think it involves something simpler: momentary detachment—both from everything that’s happening around you and from your own internal reactions as you watch from an ever so slight distance while they ebb and flow.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned about maintaining equanimity when out there on the stress-inducing road.

The importance of keeping in mind that sometimes there’s something we’re not seeing.

As I was driving down Market Street in downtown SF, I noticed a few pedestrians stopping at the crosswalk. They didn’t have the right of way; the light was red for them and green for us drivers who were trying to get through. The cars were honking.

My impulse to join the honk chaos was only for a moment. Then, as I looked closer, I saw that a woman had fallen her bags and their contents were spilling onto the sidewalk. People on the streets were passing motorists who ran to assist her in picking them up.

After they had finished I observed how they stood up and extended their arms in an apologetic gesture. [to the perturbed honkers] that seemed to say both “Just wait one minute please” and “Sorry, sorry, sorry.”

Witnessing this got me thinking about how often in this fast-paced world we jump to reactivity before even understanding what’s going on first. We’re especially primed to do this out on the road, I think.

As Shankar Vedantam said on his podcast Hidden Brain, “This woman didn’t bump into you maliciously; she’s blind. This soldier standing in formation didn’t pass out because he doesn’t have what it takes; he’s diabetic and needs his insulin. This woman isn’t heartless because she didn’t help the elderly person who had fallen; she’s paralyzed from a spinal cord injury.”

Often in life, crucial pieces of a larger whole are unavailable to us—yet sometimes we act or respond as if under the assumption that we have access to all of them.

Sometimes I get the urge to honk, particularly if someone in front of me moves slowly or stops suddenly. I wonder why they’re being “so inconsiderate.” I ask them, in my head, if they’ve forgotten where the gas pedal is located. My immediate instinct is to cast blame on whoever’s holding me up.

Yet I have to remind myself that I’m missing information. Perhaps the driver ahead of me stopped to allow someone else cross the street. Maybe there’s a red light in front of us that I can’t see. Maybe… [insert any other number of possibilities here].

I can’t see any of that though.

I’ve also been on the receiving end; for instance when I stop to let a baby animal cross the road. The cars in front of me are unable to see the obstruction and get angry, honking their disapproval.

Acceptance to admit that I’m wrong, similar to the one above.

When I was driving across the Richmond Bridge to my home, I mistakenly thought that there were two lanes. It led me into thinking the other guy behind me was driving sideways.

In response, my mind wove an entire narrative involving an entitled driver that does whatever he wants—weaves in and out, causing near collisions; uses the shoulder as his own lane, so that he can accelerate past the mass of stopped cars before cheating his way back into the pack once he’s gained a clear edge.

He has put at risk the safety of his driver [through this behavior], who has responded by honking, he says, “Why don’t they just chill out?”

The people I saw engaging in the same behavior outside of their car, was what struck me. The ones with blinders on to their own actions, who maybe call out others for “being too sensitive” while refusing to acknowledge their contribution to eliciting this supposedly sensitive response from them.

Outraged, I honked at the driver—yet he kept driving along the “shoulder.” I shot him a look of disbelief; he didn’t look back. He didn’t seem to notice that I was honking at him.

That’s when I realized why: the “shoulder” was actually a legitimate lane.

Remembering I’ve been wrong in the past helps me practice equanimity when I’m tempted to get outraged on the road.

Forgiveness is a virtue.

I think about those cars that get stranded in the middle of the intersection during high-traffic hours—usually because the light turned red when they were halfway through it. To signal disapproval, the cars surrounding them can often launch an attack of honks.

I say this to myself when I’m about to become an angry honker: It was a fatal mistake by the trapped driver. He/she is likely already aware. Your honk won’t teach him something he doesn’t already know.

I realize that all my honk would have added was more noise to an already overly raucous road, compounding the driver’s shame while maintaining my own stress and self-righteousness.

On somewhat of a side note, I’ve noticed how at times the most reckless drivers can also be some of the most intolerant of other drivers’ mistakes. One time a man who’d been driving eighty on a commercial street seemedThank you disgruntled when I changed into his lane (even though my doing this wouldn’t have been a “near miss” to someone who’d been following the speed limit).

Then he hit the brakes. Next, he weaved around me theatrically into the lane beside us. Then he continued changing lanes for three times more over the course of a block, dodging vehicles like they were in high-speed chase video games.

We can all make mistakes. It is easier to give grace to other drivers.

Practice gratitude. Acknowledge yourself when you have had a good ride. Keep that memory in your heart and recall how it felt.

Every time I cross a bay bridge without traffic, a metaphor springs to my mind. Although it happens rarely, the experience feels magical. It’s like a snowy white Christmas when I drive over the smooth asphalt without seeing a car.

It is an uplifting and soothing sight that contrasts sharply with the standard state of freeways: a long, crowded stretch of vehicles and constant reminders about overpopulation. This is similar to skiing down a slope on fresh snow that has been freshly plowed and not scuffed by others.

I took a moment to thank you.

You can show your appreciation to even machines such as Siri. If traffic jams up the freeway for instance, I am grateful that she guides me on an alternative route. One was a scenic side road that we took, passing fields of sunflowers. Country music was playing from the car’s speakers. We also had bugs and sand on our windshields.. A river that ran just a few feet from our house provided a tranquil backdrop, both visual and audibly.

Don’t force it, but when a moment that might be worthy of some gratitude does present itself, register it (even if it’s extended toward an inanimate object). Recognize it even if you don’t want to.

You can be a human being and help other drivers.

I think part of what exacerbates and heightens road rage is the ease with which we’re able to dehumanize the drivers we’re sharing the road with because we see cars first, people second. However, it is possible to restore the human element by paying attention to some visual cues.

I’ve found that making eye contact with another driver can at times quell any road rage that’s starting to bubble on my end. You can also do little things like keeping your corgi visible to drivers (if they get mad it may help calm them).).

While driving one time, I saw a car parked in the middle the road. As I was getting annoyed by the inconvenience, the little boy from Latin America ate an apricot and popped his head out of the car’s window. While he waited to get his father’s attention on their vehicle, juice ran down his cheeks. That was the reason they were stopped. I was instantly soothed by the innocent sight. This was sweet and centralizing at a Hallmark card level.

Another “tempering” visual cue: when a dog sticks its head out the window to feel the breeze against its face. Irritation was beginning to mount one day when I saw them: those big, brown eyes—opened wide, earnest, and slightly damp—shining above a golden snout in the back window.

Once again I was calmed, my anxiety diffused by our eye contact—reminded that we’re are all flesh and bone, even when stress pushes us to reduce each other to the metal contraptions we cart ourselves around inside of.

Sir, take your time. I’m just going to have a moment with your sweet fur baby in the meantime, if that’s okay…

Use your imagination to solve problems that are not easily solved by visual cues.

Whenever I start to feel impatient with the slow driver in front of me, but I can’t see their face (or no other visual cues are present to temper the impatience), I take a deep breath. Next, I gently encourage myself to imagine the person inside the vehicle.

The specifics of whichever person pops into my head don’t really matter. The important thing is to recognize and be patient with anyone that does.

If that doesn’t work, try picturing one of your family members. How about if it was your uncle or an elderly neighbour? Or your mom? Use your imagination to see inside the 2,000 pound metal machine that’s obstructing your path. It is possible to draw details on its faceless opponent. Its operator should be de-objectified.

Traffic can make driving stressful. During the times when it feels like the surrounding cars and I are basically just crawling to our destination, I feel like I might as well be outside the car, pulling it with a rope—at least that way I’d get some exercise and Vitamin D.

Sometimes I wish someone would invent a car feature that would allow the driver to switch to “pedal mode.” It’d be a great way to release endorphins through exercise (thereby reducing stress levels) during these inherently stressful situations.

We will need to be able to control how we react internally when there are roadblocks.

Eleni Stephanides

Eleni, a queer bilingual writer was born in San Francisco. Her writing journey began in elementary school when she gave out stories and magazines to classmates. Her writing has appeared in The Mighty Thought Catalogue. Elephant Journal. Uncomfortable Revolution. You can follow her on IG eleni_steph_writer and read stories from her time as a rideshare driver at lyfttales.com.

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Tiny Buddha’s post How to Mindfully Control Road Rage and Make Driving Less Stressful was first published on Tiny Buddha.

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