Effects of stress at the wheel: what to do to avoid the risks?

Stress is a normal psychological process, which affects both physically and mentally, and often occurs in situations that require a certain level of attention to what is being done by the person. It is a phenomenon that, up to certain levels, is necessary for the proper execution of certain tasks that require greater activation.

However, when stress levels exceed a person, problems begin to appear which can have serious consequences in a variety of settings, such as driving. The effects of stressful driving include more aggressive driving behavior, distracted driving, fatigue and even reckless driving.

In this article you will find the phases of stress and how stress affects us when driving a vehicle.

    What situations often cause stress?

    There are a wide variety of factors and situations that can influence when it comes to generating negative stress that can seriously affect driving, some of which we will discuss below, as they must be taken into account before seeing what are the effects of driving stress.

    1. Work overload

    It is quite common that the prolonged negative stress during the period that many people suffer from is largely caused by a heavy workload, that produces stress at work: the mind keeps moving from one concern to another.

      2. Sudden life changes

      Another factor that can favor the development of prolonged stress is that the person has undergone a sudden change in his life, such as have changed jobs, have been unemployed, have changed place of residence, have experienced a breakupthe death of a loved one, etc.

      3. High self-demand

      People with a high level of self-esteem in one or more facets of their life they tend to lead a fast pace of life, in addition to being remarkably competitive and tending to get frustrated when things don’t go as planned, so they have a greater proneness to stress.

        4. Situations that cause insecurity and/or stress while driving

        There are a variety of situations that can arise while a person is driving that can cause stress: poor environmental conditions, traffic jams, driving in excessively noisy environmentsdriving on a road that is not in an acceptable condition for automobile traffic, etc.

        5. Learn to drive

        When someone is doing a driving school course with the aim of getting a driver’s license or even when they have just withdrawn it and have not yet gained enough experience, you are more likely to experience stress while driving.

        6. Fear of driving (amaxophobia)

        There are many cases of people who have developed a driving phobia, also known as amaxophobia. This psychological disorder may have been developed for a variety of reasons associated with very stressful or distressing experiences.

          7. The stress caused by having witnessed or been the victim of a traffic accident

          Another cause that can provoke the development of driving stress it could be that you witnessed a car accident or even survived an accident in the pastwhich can also lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

            The effects of stress on driving

            Below we will look at the effects of stress at the wheel according to the different stages of development of this disorder which affects people both psychologically, according to Hans Selye’s stress theory. The so-called “general adaptation syndrome” It is divided into three main phases: alarm, resistance and exhaustion.

            1. Alarm reaction phase

            The first phase that develops due to the effects of driving stress is “alarm”, which occurs when the body of the person driving a vehicle is overloaded by various factors mentioned in the previous section (for example, a overload of work, a stressful situation at the wheel…), your body therefore needs to mobilize a lot of energy to be able to adapt and cope with this stressful situation.

            When the body has entered the alarm phase, it must be prepared to be able to gain speed and muscle strength, so that increase blood sugar and adrenaline levels, as well as breathing, heart rate, muscle tone, and blood pressure.

            In turn, the mind must be prepared to process the most relevant information at those times more efficiently, thereby focusing attention on the stressor and thus certain cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and decision-making would be seriously disrupted. .

            In some cases, being a driver in this alarm phase, if the stress levels are not too high and this situation does not last too long, could drive normally, because the body would be ready to react to this situation.

            Otherwise, the best would be to stop as soon as possible in order to rest a little and start walking as soon as you are calmer or there may even be a change of driver. If you feel overwhelmed by this stressful situation, there could be a number of negative consequences that can affect your driving.

            So the effects of driving stress during the alarm phase are the following:

            • More aggressive driving can provoke other drivers.
            • Impulsive and impatient reactions while driving that may cause you to increase your driving speed.
            • Less respect for cohabitation in traffic and also for traffic rules.
            • Reckless or reckless driving behavior.
            • A lower perception of risks at the wheel when one is not in the right conditions to drive.

            2. Resistance stage

            The second phase which goes through the effects of stress on driving it develops when the driver’s body is unable to stay longer in the previous alarm stateso that if this stressful situation persists, your body will need to maintain a level of response to the source of stress along with the rest of the bodily functions essential for survival.

            At this stage, therefore, the stress responses continue, both physically and psychologically, although with a lower intensity than in the alarm phase and, therefore, it causes excessive wear and tear on the personit therefore tends to resemble various stress-related health problems, such as digestive disorders or headaches, among others.

            In this second phase, the effects of stressful driving are one or more of the following: similar to those of the alarm phase but with a lower intensity:

            • Aggressiveness, competitiveness or even hostility at the wheel.
            • Less careful driving, which can lead to reckless behavior.
            • Less respect for traffic rules and traffic signs.
            • Less tolerance for frustration in situations with minimal accidents or driving accidents.

            3. Exhaustion phase

            The third phase that occurs under the effect of driving stress is that of “exhaustion”, which it develops when stress lasts for a long time, causing deep fatigue in those who reach this stage.

            When stress burnout occurs, various problems arise that affect the quality of life of the sufferer. Let’s see what they are.

            • This can weaken your immune system.
            • Circulatory system alterations may occur.
            • Possible muscle pain and/or migraines.
            • sleep disorders; especially insomnia.

            • Digestive disorders; possible ulcers should be highlighted
            • Fatigue will appear quite easily and intensely.
            • Mood swings, impulsivity, irritability, frequent forgetfulness, concentration problems, etc.

            Once a person is in this stress phase, it should be noted that it will be severely compromised in terms of performance across the board, including the ability to drive well, it would therefore be dangerous to use a vehicle in this situation. It is best to rest and not drive until the symptoms of stress disappear or at least decrease to acceptable levels that do not affect good performance while driving a vehicle.

            In the exhaustion phase, the effects of driving stress are as follows:

            • Decisions at this stage will be slower, so you’ll be more likely to make mistakes while driving.

            • It could be even less respectful of coexistence in traffic and traffic rules.

            • You will have even more difficulty concentrating while driving, which will make it easier for you to distract yourself.

            • You will experience more fatigue while driving, so it would be very dangerous to drive certain distances.

            • He is more likely to commit reckless driving.

            • You are more likely to have mood swings and be aggressive.

            • You may be interested: “What is impulsivity? Its causes and effects on behavior”

            Tips for combating the effects of stress while driving

            There are a number of recommendations to take into account to combat the effects of stressful driving or even avoid them. These are the tips.

            • Get into the habit of getting to the destinations you want to go well in advance.
            • Adjust the temperature according to the vehicle’s air conditioning.
            • Remain tolerant and patient in the face of traffic jams.
            • Prioritize needs and do not set unattainable goals.
            • Plan daily tasks in a structured way so they don’t pile up and cause stress.
            • Acquiring healthy lifestyle habits: doing relaxing activities, exercising, eating healthy, etc.
            • Stay well hydrated.
            • Stay focused on the road and avoid focusing on day-to-day worries.
            • Listen to relaxing music while driving.
            • Be careful when consuming stimulating beverages like coffee or tea which can make stress worse.
            • Do not drive tired even if you are sleepy.
            • Set off with plenty of time to pick up a vehicle to deal with any unforeseen events that may arise.
            • Find a rest area if someone is tired from driving or drowsy.
            • Have good sleep habits to avoid sleepiness and fatigue while driving, as well as to be at full capacity.
            • Take short breaks from time to time when you have to take a long trip.
            • Team driving if you are on a long trip and several people are available to drive.
            • If you are stressed while driving, it is best to stop and rest or let someone else drive.
            • Drive slowly and do not exceed speed limits, obeying traffic rules.
            • Try not to overtake on the road when you have a certain level of stress.

            Bibliographic references

            • Friend, I. (2020). Handbook of Health Psychology. Madrid: Ediciones Pyramid.
            • Directorate General of Traffic (sf). Driving under stress. Directorate General of Traffic (DGT).
            • Echeburúa, E. and Amor, PJ (2020). Disorders associated with trauma and stressors. In A. Belloch, B. Sandin and F. Ramos (Coords.). Handbook of Psychopathology: Volume II (pp.109-133). Madrid: McGraw Hill.
            • Pastor, JM and García-Dantas, A. (2021). Psychological treatments for disorders specifically associated with stress. In E. Fonseca (Coord.). Manual of Psychological Treatment: Adults (pp. 411-435). Madrid: Ediciones Pyramid.
            • Sandin, B. (2020). Stress. In A. Belloch, B. Sandin and F. Ramos (Coords.). Handbook of Psychopathology: Volume I (pp. 371-412). Madrid: McGraw Hill.
            • Valenzuela, I (1992). Effects of stressful driving. Transportation Safety Report, 39(4), 7.

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