Anger Management - dealing with "red mist" and "road rage"

From time to time I get asked if I have any solutions to what are known as "red mist" and "road rage". Of all the questions I've had to try to answer, this one is probably the most difficult. And, I'll be perfectly honest, not only for other people but for myself too. I find it all too easy to slip into a state where I'm acting aggressively on the roads and it's something I've fought to control, with varying degrees of success, for many years.

Unfortunately, as the roads get busier, the trigger events happen more and more often, so it's become even more important to find cure.

So first of all, you need to know what the problem is.

What are "road rage" and "red mist"?

What is commonly known as "Road Rage" is a psychological state people encounter whilst driving. Although it's only hit the headlines in the last dozen years or so, "road rage" has been around since Daimler first stuck four wheels round an engine - think of Mr Toad in "The Wind in the Willows"!

When drivers and riders start acting aggressively, often tailgating or using some hand signals you won't find in the Highway Code, that's low-level "road rage". Hopefully it ends there, but if the other driver responds in kind, then the situation can rapidly escalate out of control and serious consequences can ensue. It's not unknown for drivers to try to run bikes off the road or ram other cars, with potential and real fatal consequences.

"Road rage" normally happens because one driver does something to irritate another. According to some research on what annoys drivers, the main things that can trigger anger:

    Cutting up
    Inappropriate overtaking
    Undertaking on motorways

"Red mist" is a somewhat different psychological trap that drivers can fall into. It may be related to "road rage" such as chasing after a person who has annoyed you, but professional drivers such as police or ambulance drivers can get frustrated or angry too, and start taking risks in pursuit of a 'noble cause' whilst responding to an emergency call. The big problem is that if you allow yourself to slide into this state, you no longer assess driving risks realistically.

So, how do you stop yourself venting your anger and aggression on the world on wheels?

That's the tricky bit. Do a Google and you'll find plenty of articles about how to control "road rage" and they usually start by saying "first recognise the symptoms, then it's easier to deal with". For instance, I found this advice:

    "The best way to keep yourself from flying into an uncontrolled rage on the road is to remain calm and keep perspective. When someone does something you feel is careless or stupid on the road, you have to just let it go."

Errrrr... well, actually, I'd have to say... but HOW??

So, I went a bit further than most of these articles seem to go, to find out about why some people respond to provocation by getting angry and others seem to let it run over them like water off a duck's back.

How your brain is put together

At the most fundamental level, it's down to the structure of our brains. The brain is designed for survival rather than reasoned thinking.

Your brain is built of three very different layers, known as the "triune brain", which in very simplistic terms mirrors our development from primitive vertebrate to modern human being:

    the top layer (neo-cortex) - is the thinking part. It is split into two hemispheres, the right and the left.
    the middle layer (limbic) - is the emotions part. It deals with our sense of identity and values, and with long term memory.
    the lower layer (reptilian) - is the survival part, controlling all body functions and instincts.

Go back 450 million years and the first fish appeared, with a very small and simple brain. About 150 million years later, reptiles evolved with slightly more sophisticated brains. Not only did these handle the basic body functions such as breathing and heart beat, but the reptilian brain had, loosely speaking, three 'compartments' managing other physical capacities: one in the front for smell, one in the middle for vision and one in the rear for balance and co-ordination. In addition, the reptilian brain was 'hard-wired' for reflex actions, such as the basic instincts necessary for survival and the preservation of genes, such as the sexual drive and the 'fight or flight' response to danger.

The responses from the reptilian brain are designed for survival, and are stronger than our reasoning thoughts will ever be. 'React or Die' - at least that's the way the system was originally designed to operate all those millions of years ago.

Around 200 million years ago, the first mammals appeared and inherited the basic functioning and hard wiring of the reptilian brain, but developed two new areas:

    The limbic system:

This is the middle brain controlling emotions, maintenance functions, and is the site for long term memory. This part of the brain runs our emotions, immune system, sleeping, governs our sexuality and routes information to where it is processed in the neo-cortex. The limbic brain validates new knowledge. The limbic area holds all three parts of the brain in balance, and links long-term memory with emotion. Emotions are more important to the brain than cognitive understanding.

     The Neo-Cortex:

This is the thinking cap. It is the part of the brain used in problem solving, discerning relationships and patterns of meaning.

OK, so that's how the brain's built, what does it do for us now?

Back on the road in the 21st century and millions of years on, the primitive brain is still highly active and always on the alert for life-threatening - real or perceived - events. If the reptilian brain believes life is threatened, it tries to takes over, pitting the ancient, hard-wired fight and flight responses of our reptile ancesters against the more flexible "reasoning" responses of our 'new' brain.

The trouble is that our reptilian brain doesn't know the difference between a real threat to our lives that demands instant action, and something that surprises and scares us but could have been dealt with had we a moment to think about it.

In both cases it takes over - we react instinctively and without thinking - and sometimes violently.

Cue "road rage".

This is why smug statements like this one don't help but positively hinder:

    "The truth is that no matter where you go, no matter how safe, careful, and considerate a driver you are, there is going to be someone on the road who is not. They're going to challenge all the patience you have built up, possibly putting your life at risk... A road rager feels a certain degree of superiority over all other drivers on the road. They feel it is their duty to punish bad drivers and teach them "lessons...Their behavior is equally selfish, immature, and dangerous."

Telling me I'm 'selfish, immature and dangerous' isn't going to help me or anyone else overcome the problem. In fact, it's likely to generate the very anger that the write is railiing against, whilst generating a complacency in others who think "I'm not like that" whilst making all the mistakes that generate road rage in others!

We are ALL potential road ragers, so whilst some of us need to know how to avoid being one, the rest of us need to know how to avoid setting someone else off.

Some strategies for dealing with "road rage"

So, know we know WHY we react, perhaps we can ask WHAT we can we do about the problem?

What about the Zen-like calm that some people seem to think is a worthy goal whilst riding? Can't we reach some state of nirvana where we're always "happy" and nothing bothers us? It doesn't seem very likely to me, and even if we could, we'd be missing something that constantly feeds other information into our concious brain.

The key to me seems to be not to get rid of anger but to have two alternative strategies:

    learn to anticipate and avoid the situations that might scare us - if we are expecting them, our reasoning brain will deal with the fall-out and we won't give the reptilian brain chance to take over
    if we do respond instinctively, learn how to deal with it in a manner that's not harmful to ourselves or to others, and to heed its message.

Avoiding causing road rage in others and avoiding situations that could cause road rage in us

Let's deal with the first option of anticipating and avoiding the situations that might cause "road rage". There are several things you can work on:

    avoid road rage by accepting all riders and drivers (including you and me) make mistakes

Accept that noone is perfect and ride accordingly. Get out of the mindset that other drivers on the road are out to get you. Most frequently, dangerous situations arise because one driver makes a simple judgement error. Sometimes they are guilty of obliviousness and carelessness.

But - vitally - there is absolutely NO REASON you should join them in their mistake. Don't put yourself in a position where you rely on someone else to keep you out of trouble.

So, know where mistakes happen and use your anticipation skills to stay out of trouble. Junctions, roundabouts, bends, busy dual carriageways are just a few places things go wrong. If you sit in the blind spot of a car, and the driver suddenly changes lane into your space, who's fault is it? His for not seeing you? Or yours for hiding where you couldn't be seen?

Aim to be able to say to yourself: "ah yes, I was expecting him to do that". It's a skill well worth practicing!

You might make the mistake yourself. An apology - a raised hand - can often defuse a situation straight away. Advice to avoid eye contact may only make things worse. I know that when someone does something daft in front of me and then pretends I'm not there, my blood pressure rises rapidly.

    reduce your own stress threshold

In the first place, try to stop yourself from being stressed and in a rush when you leave the house. Leave early and give yourself time to get to your destinations so that you're not in a rush. Be familiar with the route and alternate routes, and where the patterns of traffic form. Traffic and weather reports will forwarn you to problems before you leave.

Other things that will increase your stress threshold are discomfort and tiredness - take regular breaks to rest and rehydrate on long rides and wear kit that keeps you cool in hot weather. Try to avoid driving if you feel unwell, or distracted for any reason. Don't ride and drive, avoid riding when ill and be careful when taking any medications.

Other common causes of stress are work and family problems.

    avoid triggering aggressive behaviour yourself

Another trigger for "road rage" is drivers who are going too slow or do not seem experienced. Make allowances for others. Don't make hand signals. It's all to easy to speed up to tailgate or flash our lights at a driver we feel is going too slow, and though we might get our way, it could just easily tip the other driver over the edge to retaliating.

    what you do may not affect you directly - but could have a knock-on effect further down the road.

For instance, after following a slower driver for a couple of miles on the twistiest, most fun bit of your favourite Sunday jaunt, you've just impatiently carved your way past, forcing him to swerve and brake to avoid hitting you (or at least, he thinks he would have hit you!).

You've passed him - he's no longer a problem to you. But what about the bike behind you, who has a perfectly safe overtake opportunity but finds a driver now in the grips of road rage - and who swerves towards the overtaking bike and tries to force him back behind him? Ever happened to you? What goes round, comes around! We ALL share the road, and your own behaviour may trigger aggression to the next rider along.

    "stealth riding"

I'll cover this a bit more detail in another tip I'm preparing, but you don't have to ride "in yer face" to make good progress. It's a natural instinct to protect your own "space" - just think how jealously people guard "their space" on a beach with towels and windbreaks! Dazzling headlights, excessively loud pipes and cut'n'thrust riding close to other vehicles all impinge on other drivers' ideas of what their own road space should be, even when you think differently.

Read this statement I found on another website:

    "Aggressive drivers are careless drivers who want to get ahead of everyone on the road despite the toll it takes on others... put their own convenience before anyone else's safety. Other drivers may develop road rage, potentially violent anger, in response and retaliation to the violations they feel other drivers commit."

Now think about how we ride our bikes. Do we often want to get ahead of everyone else?? Hmmm...

Never forget other road users have their own ideas about how riders and drivers should behave on the roads and will judge YOU by THEIR standards of behaviour. In other words, you may believe you did a perfectly good and safe overtake but it may not appear so in the eyes of the person you just passed or the driver coming the other way.

So who's right? That's a difficult one to answer, but if there is an answer, it's probably "neither of you".

If you are performing manoeuvres that annoy or scare other drivers, then you shouldn't be doing them, regardless of what you think is safe. Aggressive driving is in the eye of the beholder - ask yourself "how will another driver see what I am about to do" before you do it - and it's worth remembering that few magistrates ride bikes! A good rider is almost invisible to other drivers. On the other hand, it's often difficult as a rider to understand why other road users often have little perception of what is safe on a bike. However, it's worth bearing in mind that the one who will come off worst in any argument of four wheels vs two is the rider.

Avoiding responding to "road rage" like-for-like

So, move onto the second case - you are the unlucky rider who is greeted with an inexplicable display of aggression by another road user, or someone does something daft which you haven't foreseen and you feel yourself getting angry.

HOW do you stop yourself responding with aggression yourself? HOW do you stay calm and just let it go?

Easier said than done. As one expert on anger management writes:

    "The anger will eat us up, while having little effect on the object of our anger, which means we are twice victims, and more the fool... Learning to manage anger is part of emotional intelligence. We are never far from the two-year-old throwing a tantrum. "We never grow up", someone said, "We just learn how to behave in public". The difference is self-awareness and tools for understanding the emotion, being able to stop, self-soothe and think it through, and not letting it get the better of us".

The first step is to recognize it is happening and accept it. Our responses are there for a reason, which should be noted. Anger gains control over us when we either ignore it, or let ourselves react to it in knee-jerk fashion. If you hide it away, the aggression will simply build up and you'll "kick the dog" - some unsuspecting and innocent party will bear the brunt of your growing resentment.

Well, the one thing we can't do with anger and aggression is ignore it, even if we are not addicted to anger - and some people are. Anger addiction goes way beyond anything you can deal with yourself so professional councilling is in order.

So, at the risk of sounding a bit Zen-like myself, what are the solutions?

Sit with the anger. Experience it. Acknowledge it. Then let the reasoning area of the brain re-establish control, and decide what, if anything, you are going to do about it.

Respond, but don't react, by putting a deliberate pause in between feeling and action. When you realise you are not "acting yourself", breath deeply, count to ten, think it over and move on. Be willing to do nothing, while feeling it at the same time. But don't ignore it.

A longer learning process is to learn to forgive. Injustices occur all the time, and we have all been on the receiving end. One reason this is a good policy is because mistakes can't be undone. An apology may not be enough. If we forgive, we do so for our own benefit, not the benefit of the perpetrator.

You can try to channel the anger into harmless activities. Chopping wood or hitting golf balls when you're angry is theraputic. Riding or driving faster isn't. On the bike you can try to describe the situation objectively such as "ok the guy in front has pulled out, failing to judge my speed and distance which means I now have to brake to avoid him".

In conclusion, "road rage" is not something that other people suffer from - we are all likely to be road ragers at some point. The key to dealing with it is to both understand why we should avoid provoking others to "road rage" and to try to deal with it if we ourselves suffer from it.