Can everyday traffic affect our mental health?

Traffic congestion and noise can cause stress, fatigue, irritability, and rage in commuters. Sunny Joseph, clinical psychologist, shares his insights on the topic and tells us what we can do.
Can everyday traffic affect our mental health?

Vehicular traffic, especially traffic jams and long commutes can affect commuters in many ways. Loud honking, road rage and overspeeding can affect the person themselves and other commuters as well. And one of the biggest consequences of this is stress.

Stress is a very broad term with multiple dimensions. At a psychological level, it can cause anxiety, lack of control, work frustration, or problems in the way we respond or react (shouting when frustrated).

At a cognitive level, the sense of a lack of control, a feeling of helplessness and poor tolerance for frustration lowers one’s response inhibitive ability and one does whatever comes to their mind at that moment.

At a physical level, one may experience high blood pressure, a feeling of being on edge, a heightened activity in the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS, the part of the brain that’s responsible for controlling bodily functions which are not consciously directed, like breathing, heartbeat and digestion), and changes in body temperature. In the long run, the immune system’s ability to withstand pressure reduces, especially when the activity in the ANS is high.

At a social level, there could be a possibility of not going to office, or taking a day off in order to avoid traffic stress. Possible effects can include people opting for a job change due to the stress and fatigue caused by the daily commute. Some people may also feel a lack of motivation to meet friends and extended family.

Other reasons and repercussions

While traffic itself can cause stress, there are other factors that may intensify the tension.

  • Conflicts at home/work/elsewhere which are carried onto the road

  • Quarrels that occur on the road

  • Rash behavior because of traffic congestion

This stress may often be carried home, where the person who is stressed may misdirect their anger towards their spouse or children. This could form a vicious cycle and in turn result in road rage or rash driving the next time they commute or are stuck in a traffic jam.

Sunny Joseph, Clinical Psychologist at Manipal Hospital

Same traffic, different perceptions

“Often, it is seen that the same amount of traffic can be perceived differently by different people. Personality characteristics and situational factors could contribute to the person’s perception of stress. People who are particular about time management, perfectionism, and organizing several things at once are especially prone to perceive the traffic situation as more stressful.” says Joseph.

How does traffic congestion and noise affect a person?

Joseph says, “Most of us try to follow a certain schedule for ourselves. But we rarely take into account the possibility of a traffic congestion. And when one is on the road, we tend to feel a lack of control and a sense of helplessness. At the same time, if one is preoccupied with thoughts and faced with honking, traffic, pressure, or overstimulation, one is forced beyond the optimal level of working, which changes the way the body perceives it.”

Long commutes and the constant application of brakes and accelerator could further cause fatigue. Mentally, fatigue could result in:

  • Making errors

  • Difficulty making decisions

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Trouble communicating

  • Short attention span

  • Lapses in memory

  • Slower reaction time  

Emotionally, fatigue can make the person:

  • Irritable

  • Unmotivated

  • Lethargic

  • Lacking in energy

  • Quiet

  • Withdrawn  

To counter this, forming good sleep habits to get the rest your body needs, taking short naps during the day, drinking plenty of fluids, eating right, exercising regularly, and balancing time between work and family life can help you overcome fatigue.

In some cases, traffic stress can contribute to causing accidents. Here are recent accident statistics in which traffic stress and emotional fatigue may have played a role.

Who is most affected?

Bus, truck, auto rickshaw and cab drivers are most affected by traffic congestion and long commutes. They are constantly under a tremendous amount of pressure and have absolutely no intervention or help when stressed or when they are in a situation of distress. The stress could build up and be released as anger which is misdirected onto pedestrians or other commuters.

“People with anxiety disorders and panic disorders often worry about getting stuck in a traffic jam. This is because of an underlying fear of not getting assistance in case of an accident or any problem,” says Joseph.

How can traffic stress be dealt with?

  • Carpooling is one of the best ways to deal with traffic stress. Driving with co-passengers takes away the focus from the stressor and it becomes easier to deal with the stress.

  • Deep breathing can help stay calm and let go of the situation.

  • Social awareness programs and sessions in time management help in dealing with stress to a large extent.

From a policy point of view:

  • Rules should be strictly implemented and followed. For instance, commercial vehicles and HTVs must be prohibited from commuting during school/office hours.

  • Parking spaces must be allotted and strict parking rules should be in place.

  • Counseling services should be made available for those in need. This would involve identifying vulnerable people, traffic police officers, drivers and others.

With inputs from Sunny Joseph, clinical psychologist at Manipal Hospital, Bangalore.

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