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Getting a Grip on Roadway Anger

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Although one of the studies described in Deffenbacher's article explored the emotional, behavioral, and accident-risk characteristics of high-anger drivers, a second looked at treatments for the problem.

The studies included 57 college freshmen and sophomore students (23 men, 34 women) enrolled in introductory psychology classes at Colorado State. Each scored high on a driving-anger scale, Deffenbacher tells WebMD. "They had to personally identify their own driving anger as a personal problem they wanted counseling for."

The students were assigned to attend eight therapy sessions -- either relaxation or cognitive relaxation therapy, both common methods for treating anxiety, stress, and anger.

Relaxation therapy "works on the notion you can be really angry and really calm at the same time," says Deffenbacher. "A great number of people get all hot-headed, physically angry and charged up. But if they could calm down, they would think [the situation] through more calmly."

Each student was taught basic techniques of relaxation: tensing and releasing the muscles, and deep breathing. This was followed by sessions in which they visualized "road rage" situations while a therapist prompted them to control their reactions.

The cognitive-relaxation group got the same type of relaxation interventions along with work on anger-provoking thought processes.

"For example, let's say you cut me off in traffic," Deffenbacher says. "I'm thinking, 'Crazy [woman], she shouldn't be allowed on the road. This is awful, I'm going to run over her.' That's a very angering way to think about it. Instead, I could think, ''Wow, she almost hit me. Back off, Jerry; let her have her accident somewhere else. Just chill out and let her go down the road.'

"Those are two very different thought patterns, even though your behavior is identical in those examples," he tells WebMD. "We help people identify the thought patterns that take a bad situation and make it worse."

The study showed that the two types of interventions were nearly equally effective. "They don't make people absolutely anger-free but they do reduce the frequency and intensity of anger," Deffenbacher says.

People must want to change, or none of it will work, Deffenbacher says. He advises anyone who wants to change angry behaviors -- whether or not they are related to driving -- to check the yellow pages for therapists who deal with stress and anxiety issues. "In the mental health profession, anger has not been identified as a diagnosable condition," he says.

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