As a society we’re a very long way from mastering mindfulness. How do I know this? I’ve driven in Sydney traffic.
For many people a strange Jekyll and Hyde transformation takes place the moment they get behind the steering wheel. Seemingly calm and gentle characters suddenly morph into incredibly impatient, rage-filled monsters.
Go 5km/h under the speed limit and they will tailgate you. Be a second delayed pulling away from the lights and they will blast their horns. Even those who profess to be saints of the road will not hesitate to call a fellow road user something rather unsavoury if they fail to offer a courtesy wave when let in. Any minor delay or driver error will be enough to provoke a furious response.
Mostly, I’m pretty relaxed behind the wheel, but I must admit, I’ve had my moments. Maybe you’ve had them too?
So, why does this happen? It’s not just because we live busy lives. It’s not just because sitting in traffic is frustrating. The real answer is that often we tune in to our reactive minds (the bit of our brains that help us escape from man-eating animals), rather than our wise minds (the bit of our brains that aids in complex, reasoned decision-making).
Being in this highly reactive state doesn’t just make for a bad commute – throughout life it can have a number of huge downsides.
1. You make terrible decisions in a reactive state.
Road rage is a classic example of the reactive mind taking over. In this highly agitated, wound-up mode, a person may somehow conclude that the best course of action is to tailgate another driver at high speed whilst blasting their horn and screaming curses out the window.
Had that same person engaged their wise mind, it’s likely they would have had some other insights and made a few different decisions. They may have considered that tailgating someone at high speed is dangerous. They may have considered that blasting their horn and cursing would only serve to make them look like a complete ****. They may have worked out that the other driver is just a human who makes regular human errors and that getting worked up about it won’t really achieve anything at all.
2. Getting reactive is no good for your health.
Physiologically something very interesting happens when you get into a reactive state. From your adrenal glands cortisol is released. This stress chemical will cause your blood pressure to rise and your heart to pump faster. Just like a gazelle being stalked by a lion, you will be primed to react. But this burst of readiness comes at a cost.
To put it very simply, having too much cortisol is like having too many donuts – over time it’s really bad for your health. Cortisol affects the immune system and if you are constantly stressed out, it can be much harder for your body to repair itself. Too much cortisol can also affect a wide range of other things, including memory formation, bone density and fat storage.
3. Being in a reactive state feels awful
If you’ve been in a reactive state for your entire commute, it’s likely you’ll get to work feeling agitated and on edge. You may be carrying physical tension in your chest, neck, jaw or other parts of your body and this can easily lead to headaches and other forms of pain. When feeling cranky and uptight, the tiniest things will cause you great annoyance. It’s very easy to get on a reactive roll and go through your day like a petulant racquet smashing tennis player. Later, when you try to get to sleep, your mind may still be racing. Even when you do get some shut-eye, it’s quite possible that you will grind your teeth or have stress-filled dreams.
4. Being reactive makes you horrible to be around.
Have you ever sat next to a driver with road rage? Have you ever been in a room while someone is angrily vacuuming? Have you ever been shouted at by someone who is absolutely furious about some trivial little thing? If so, you will know that none of these experiences are at all pleasant. Whenever you are in a highly reactive state, even those people who love and care for you will find it very hard to be around you.
Continually getting reactive can be highly destructive to relationships and can instantly make you appear far less attractive. American author, Louise Fitzhugh summed it up neatly when she said “There is no sight so ugly as the human face in anger”.
5. It is a giant waste of your precious time.
Time spent in a reactive state is time horribly wasted. When you’re reactive, your mind chews up a lot of energy going over and over the same thing. If you take action, chances are it will be an action that you end up regretting later. In a reactive state, you’re not very constructive, creative or appreciative of the good stuff that is all around you.
If time is precious to you, why waste it being reactive and feeling tense, uptight and horrible? Instead why not learn to recognise when your reactive mind is being triggered?
Rather than instantly following your reactive mind’s rash impulses, you can then choose to take a moment, consult your wise mind and more carefully consider your options. With the full processing power of your frontal lobes now working for you, you will likely make far better, more rational decisions.
Learning to access your wise mind will not just make you a better driver. It can improve your relationships. It can improve your heath. It can make life more enjoyable. It can even make you a more attractive human being!
If we could turn something as potent and highly beneficial as mindfulness into a topical cream, we’d probably be billionaires by now. We’d sell it in frightfully expensive small tubes and employ famous actors in overblown commercials, where they would encourage you to “fight the seven signs of being a cranky, reactive jerk”. Alas, we haven’t yet figured out how to turn cognitive skills into a nice creamy consistency. You can be assured however that regularly applying a little mindfulness to your daily life will produce powerfully positive effects.