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The Psychology of Road Rage: Dangers and Anger Management

When that nutcase on the road is you.

Recently, I received yet another reminder of just how human I am. While driving in my car, encapsulated by the cool comfort of the A/C and the soothing music I'd chosen, I nearly succumbed to certifiable full-blown road rage.

Provided that you own a car and occasionally use it, you've witnessed road rage in action-when the person afflicted gets sucked into extremely aggressive behavior as he or she travels from point A to point B. You know the symptoms: extending the middle finger, rolling down the window to launch verbal diarrhea, swerving, cutting off offending vehicles. The majority of the time, we probably laugh at such silliness dismissively, shaking our heads and silently congratulating ourselves for the strength and wisdom that allows us to rise above such nonsense.

But the other day, I realized that said road rager could be me. Looking for a spot in a crowded parking lot (what other kinds of parking lots are there in Los Angeles?), I spotted a seemingly innocent car waiting to take a spot from an exiting driver. Good citizen that I aspire to be, I tried to pull my car around the detour in order to let the waiting car take the spot. And that was the moment in which all hell broke loose. Misunderstanding my actions as an attempt to... Steal! His! Spot! the waiting driver jerked his car forward so that it nearly hit mine, rolled down his window, and began hurling obscenities in my direction.

I had no intention of taking his spot. Clearly, this was just one big (or super small and, in a world that makes sense, insignificant) misunderstanding, right? Unfortunately, adrenaline got the best of me because I stopped my car and rolled down the window, not quite sure what I would do, but certain that I would do something.

Given that I knew perfectly well that this was a miscommunication, why did I feel so upset? How could a rush of angry adrenaline be triggered by something so trivial and childish? As a therapist, I'd like to think that I can always take my own advice and learn how to chill out, opting to use my cerebral cortex over the more primitive parts of my frontal lobe in my moment-to-moment decision making. But the fact is that we all have a tiny bit of crazy inside us that typically lies dormant but that can be awakened like a sleeping bear if the circumstances are just right (or wrong).

Fortunately, I had a rational-minded friend in the passenger's seat - one who appeared to be rather trigger-free that day - who urged me not to say anything. This quick intervention diffused the anger on my side, potentially changing everything (I'd practically rolled up my sleeves in preparation for an old-school match of fisticuffs).

A moment of clarity later, I was able to take a deep breath and pull it together. And though five minutes later I had forgotten the episode altogether, the event itself reminded me of something important: We all need to watch ourselves closely when we have reactions that trigger the impulse for a true verbal lashing or a knock-down, drag-out fight. The next time you get triggered - because it happens to each and every one of us - use it as a reminder that it's time to decompress. Plan a trip to the gym, a bike ride, or a hike with your pets or kids, because your trigger-happy frontal lobe is telling you that you need a serious dose of perspective.

Feel free to explore my book on dysfunctional relationships, Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve, or follow me on Twitter!

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