The Situationist

The Psychological Toll of Automobile Traffic

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 10, 2008

Situationist readers who live or work in cities like Los Angeles, New York, London, or Boston can certainly relate to stress caused by being stuck in traffic. To be sure, traffic causes more than mere anxiety — it has been connected to obesity, lost economic opportunities, and environmental waste, among other socially undesirable consequences. According to research by UC Irvine psychologists Raymond Novaco and Daniel Stokols, commuter stress can prove highly damaging to those who experience it. Below we excerpt an article by the Los Angeles Times‘ Christopher Goffard that examines their research and its implications.

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As society hurtles forward in an age of instant messaging and one-click shopping, motorists paradoxically find themselves moored between bumpers for hours a day, with a psychic toll that experts are still trying to tally.

Dr. Laura Pinegar, a Long Beach psychologist who treats depression and panic disorders, hears a growing number of complaints about traffic anxiety in her practice.

“If you’re stuck in traffic, there’s a feeling of being out of control,” she said. “You can be at a dead standstill on the freeway, but amped up from the day, thinking, ‘I gotta get home. I gotta get the kids. What if I don’t get to day care before it closes?’ “

In several studies on commuter stress, UC Irvine psychologists Raymond Novaco and Daniel Stokols made a surprising finding. Though they hypothesized that long commutes would be more stressful for hard-charging, Type A personalities than for mellow Type Bs, it turned out that the opposite was true. The reasons: The hard-chargers exercised more control over their lives. They had picked homes they liked and jobs that absorbed them. In traffic, they thought about work. The mellow drivers, on the other hand, thought about being trapped in traffic.

According to one study, women with long-distance commutes who drive alone are in the demographic group that suffers the greatest commuting stress. Pinegar said she has had some success in encouraging drivers to think of their commute as a buffer zone between work and home. “Especially mothers with large families,” she said. “They think, ‘This is my time to mellow out, maybe listen to the radio, get books on tape.’ ”

How gridlock makes us feel depends on what we tell ourselves about the experience, says Ronald Nathan, a psychologist in Albany, N.Y., who has treated both perpetrators and victims of road rage.

“Some people say, ‘Great, I can kick back and listen to some music,’ ” Nathan said, but others feel like life is passing them by. “We can start to over-generalize by saying, ‘My life is worthless. All I am is somebody who gets into a piece of metal and goes from one place to another.’ ”

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For the rest of the article, click here. For a related Situationist post, see “Car Bonding.”

3 Responses to “The Psychological Toll of Automobile Traffic”

  1. […] To be sure, traffic causes more than mere anxiety ?? it has been connected to obesity, lost e by Gavin Middleton, Organics Aotearoa NZ by Gavin Middleton, Organics […]

  2. I work in LA and stress caused by being stuck in traffic here, i wouldn’t be surprised if its the main cause of stress whether you’re late for work, a birthday, your anniversary, a dinner, a party its INSANE! especially being stuck on the 405 has become a stressful nightmare! Not only do i go through it everyday but i go through it at least 3 times a day! work, meeting, home and this is at least! I usually have other things to do 3-5 times a week such as dinner, an additional meeting etc. It is truly an annoying thing.

    Great Post,

  3. In NY there is seriously nowhere to move It is not always possible to avoid stress, especially in a growing economy like NY where its packed with people.
    high traffic commute cause you to arrive at work already stressed out. Way to begin your day, no?
    the body reacts to petty annoyances like getting caught in traffic.
    Its not that you get caught in traffic once in a whole. In NY its an everyday thing, its everytime you get in your car.

    I want to get out of here just because of the traffic!

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