Self Caring

Driving Under the Influence of Stress

Last updated: May 16, 2011

Steering Wheel

Looking at an insurance company website recently, I was startled to see this: Driving while stressed is a form of distracted driving.

Driving under the influence of stress may not be as deadly as, say, text messaging while driving. But it does cause one of the three types of distraction -- cognitive, or taking your mind off what you're doing -- that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration identifies as increasing the risk of crashing. (The other two types of distracted driving are visual and manual.)

"Distressed driving": what it is

Maybe this has happened to you: You're tense and irritable, haven't slept well. Maybe your loved one took a turn for the worse and you're driving to the hospital. Maybe you're still absorbing what the doctor just told you as you drive home from the appointment. Maybe your loved one with dementia turned aggressive and hit you, and you're getting away for a sorely needed break while someone else watches him or her.

Researchers say your emotional state and thoughts are diverting you from giving the road your full attention. Your ability to drive defensively is diminished.

You, the person who can least afford to be in need of medical care yourself, are at elevated risk of getting into an accident.

(More so, of course, if you're also using a device like a cellphone as you drive.)

How to avoid distressed driving

One expert recommends running a self-check before you put the key in the ignition: Is your heart racing? Breathing shallow? Anger or grief still uppermost in your feelings right now? If so, you might want to wait a few minutes, try some deep breathing or even a short walk up and down the driveway before you drive off. Or wait a half hour. Or ask someone else to drive you.

Of course, caregivers are chronically sleep deprived and battling stress. The particular risk or tipping point may be when you're whipped up emotionally from a specific incident, on top of all the usual stressors. (Sleep deprivation is a separate, if related, category of driving risk.)

I know of two caregivers who were in car crashes recently. Coincidence? Or distressed driving?

I know this info is going to make me be sure I'm calmed down before I head off on a bad day -- and I'll try to pull over if I start falling apart mid-drive.