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The laid-back Lowcountry gets a taste of bigger-city stress

Tangled traffic from a bridge closing is causing fender benders and road rage. Here’s how to cope.

SCDOT image of bridge
Notice something missing? Cars, that should be on Interstate 526 west headed over the Wando River. The Wando Bridge's westbound lanes closed earlier this week after an inspection showed a cable inside the bridge had snapped. Image from SCDOT website
Helen Adams | | May 18, 2018

An SUV with a Texas license plate turns left onto Coleman Boulevard in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, just after its traffic light has turned red. A driver in a BMW who was already on Coleman waiting for a green light zooms up behind the SUV, almost hitting it, in an apparent case of road rage.

There’s plenty of that going around as drivers throughout the Charleston area deal with a lot more traffic than normal thanks to a temporary bridge closing.

MUSC Health psychologist Ali Wilkerson says that’s not surprising. “If you’re someone who typically tends to have a little bit more road rage, it might be a little harder for you. It can be easier to take things personally when we’re stressed and act out at people when they cut us off. If we are caught off guard by traffic and if we don’t have a backup plan for how to cope with it, that’s a lot more likely to happen.”

She describes the physiological response. “If you are someone who gets a little worked up in those situations, that is your fight or flight response kicking in where you’re feeling that increased heart rate and that increased breathing. Maybe even sweating a little or feeling nauseous. You’re just annoyed that you’re going to be an hour late to work or you’re really mad at that person who just let three people in front of you and now you missed the light or whatever it is.”

You can counter that sympathetic nervous system response through deep breathing, Wilkerson says. “Fill your lungs. Belly breaths and diaphragmatic breathing sort of tell your brain that the threat is over and the fight or flight system can shut down. That will bring you back to earth.”

The longer your breaths, the better. “You want your belly to go out and you don’t want your shoulders to go up. That’s how you know you’re getting big belly breaths. And a good rule of thumb is breathe in and count to five, breathe out and count to five,” she says.

“Because deep short breaths are part of the fight or flight response, deep breaths kind of trick your brain into thinking, ‘See, now we’re working in the opposite direction.’ That sends a cascade of physiological symptoms down the pipeline to say, ‘OK, we can be calm now.’”

There are other ways to help lower your street stress, too. “Check traffic beforehand,” Wilkerson says. “Unwelcome surprises can kick in the fight or flight response, which can make you edgier when you’re sitting in traffic.”

Also, find something to entertain you. “Plan things that don’t require a lot of attention.

Download an enjoyable podcast beforehand that you can listen to without needing to touch anything on your dash or move your attention away from the road. Or if you have a hands -device, call a family member or friend to catch up while you’re just sitting there waiting for things to happen,” Wilkerson says.

“Most importantly, don’t try to do work to catch up on emails or texts or anything like that because wrecks caused by inattention will just mean worse traffic for everyone.”

She says people who already don’t like driving over bridges may feel more stress than usual in light of the trouble on the Wando Bridge on 526. “Chances are hearing that there was a cable snapped on the bridge is going to make things a lot worse.”

Bridge fear is more common in areas such as Charleston that have a lot of bridges. “They only really become problematic when you have to deal with them.”

The problem can be treated, she says. “If you’re someone who becomes anxious on bridges, you will likely benefit from practice. Start with smaller bridges that cause a small amount of distress. Go over them until that anxiety goes down significantly. Then gradually work your way up to the mile-long bridge that goes over deep water.”

The traffic trouble may not go away any time soon. The latest estimate is that the westbound lanes of the Wando Bridge on 526 will stay closed for four weeks, sending thousands of drivers who normally use it onto alternate routes.

Suffer from a fear of bridges? You're not alone. Gephyrophobia is real. (The Post and Courier, May 17, 2018)

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