On a recent family road trip, I found myself struggling through some bad weather on a complex, unfamiliar highway. Road glare, fog, heavy traffic, and some vision difficulties had my heart beating and my nerves fraying. As I tried to manage my anxious reactions and keep our family safely moving forward, I considered how this treacherous travel was mirroring the difficult path we have been facing lately through our daily life, and made a mental note of the life lessons I was learning on the road:
- Don’t look too far ahead: When I drive, I get nervous if I can’t see what’s coming up, preferably a mile ahead. In this foggy, rainy afternoon, I couldn’t see more than 1-2 car lengths ahead of me at any given time. The road’s dividing lines were hard to discern, and in order to move forward safely, I had to force myself to keep my eyes focused on just the car directly ahead. In life, so many of us ratchet up our anxiety by projecting too far ahead. Our worries about one small mistake or bad decision may quickly “snowball” into catastrophic thinking about possibly disastrous long-term consequences. For example, we may have one bad test score, and we’re suddenly worried about a failed high school career, lack of college admissions, no good job prospect, and ultimately homelessness and dying alone! Whoa, that’s not helpful. Instead, just take the learning from that one test to do better on the next one, and you’ll keep moving forward, one car length at a time.
- Travel at your own pace: When the driving is tough, I consider staying in the slow lane, where it seems like the pressure is lower and I can always pull over. But that actually puts me more at risk with others coming in and going out through that lane, and the constant approach of another exit ramp has me second-guessing my capabilities and consumed by the option of an easy out. I quickly learned that staying in the middle lane allows me to travel forward at a steady pace with minimal effect on or from other drivers or temptation to exit. More confident (or reckless) drivers can pass on the left, new entries can enter on the right, I just stay straight on. In this achievement-oriented, social-media-heavy world, this lesson is an
important one. Don’t measure yourself by what others are doing around you. Travel at your own pace.
- Focus on one task at a time: I am a focused driver when I am alone, but I am particularly distracted when my kids are in the car, especially during a long road trip. When I’m not driving, I’m in charge of navigation, device management, food distribution, sibling crisis intervention, etc. I realized that it is hard for me to avoid noticing and advising on those topics when I am in the driver’s seat as well. But clearly, it’s not safe to weigh in at that time. Outside of the car, we parents often pride ourselves on our ability to multi-task, believing we are maximizing our productivity and efficiency. However, the perceived success of multi-tasking is deceiving. Our brains can only truly focus on one activity at a time. Multi-tasking requires repetitive shifts of focus, and can be dangerous, in a car or out.
- Face your fears: No matter how bad the weather, you can’t just stop the car in the middle of the highway. Face your fears, push through, and just keep driving.
- Practice self-calming: Remember to breathe. And use music to help pass the time and quiet the mood. Singing loudly along with a favorite tune can help release nervous energy. Of course, if you’re in the car with your family, maybe they don’t want to hear your Madonna impersonation, but hey, you’re driving.
- You can’t control the world around you: Bad weather, bad drivers, traffic, you can’t predict it. You can try to anticipate problems, choose less popular travel times, position yourself strategically away from dangerous drivers, and seek alternate routes, but you can’t control it all. Sometimes you will be frustrated, sometimes there will be accidents. You can, however, control your reactions. When you are tempted to react instinctively, take an extra moment so you can choose to respond thoughtfully instead. And just like Waze and Siri, be open to new paths and new ideas.
- Ask for help when you need it: When you are feeling overwhelmed, it may be tempting to just stop the car. But you can’t just cut the power in the middle of the highway. Find a safe exit and rest or ask for help. I’m lucky that my husband likes to drive because I was practically useless on this trip. I felt terrible turning the wheel over to him for the bulk of the ride, but ultimately it was the right call for our safety.
Wishing you all safe journeys on the road and off.
Rebecca Martorella, LMFT welcomes ideas and comments and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.