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Chasing Life

Did you know that some people can taste colors and others have a hard time recognizing faces? This season on Chasing Life, Dr. Sanjay Gupta takes listeners beyond the basics of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch to explore unique sensory experiences. Discover why psychedelics might change your worldview, how animals perceive differently than humans, and how biases in taste might impact the future of food production.

Join us each week to marvel at how the rich landscape of sensory perception shapes our understanding of the world.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta

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What Drives Your Road Rage?
Chasing Life
Jun 28, 2022

Do you ever feel your blood pressure rise, sitting in a sea of stand-still traffic? It’s not all in your head. All that time spent in the driver's seat could actually take a toll on your mind and body. In this episode, we’re hitting the road with someone who drives for a living – a long-haul truck driver – to hear how she keeps calm and focused. Plus, traffic psychologist Dwight Hennessy explains why we feel the way we do behind the wheel and shares some tips for making your commute a little more bearable. 

Episode Transcript
Kayla Chavez
00:00:02
The longest trip that I have taken was probably 2,500 miles. That was Fontana, California, to Florida.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:00:16
For most of us, driving as a way to get from point A to point B. But for Kayla Chavez, it's a way of life.
Kayla Chavez
00:00:24
I am a truck driver -- over the road, truck driver. Over-the-road truck drivers are truck drivers who travel all 48 states and they're on over the road for 2 to 3 weeks and they go home for a week.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:00:42
A few years ago, at the age of 25, Kayla quit her job as a flight attendant and made a life changing decision: to buy her very own truck. She got the idea from her boyfriend, who's now her co-driver. And today they travel the country together.
Kayla Chavez
00:00:58
Our truck is called "Riggie Smalls" because our truck is very tiny compared to every other truck around us. He is so precious and so beautiful.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:01:12
We caught up with Kayla while she was parked, safely, at truck stop in California getting ready for a two day trip to Texas. That's actually a shorter trip for Kayla. And because she spends a lot of time on the road. Kayla's truck feels like home.
Kayla Chavez
00:01:27
Here is my bed. And you have this little fridge here, and this is where I'm setting the computer. I don't know if you could see it. And then we just have the cab here.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:01:41
But even though Kayla loves her job and she gets a thrill from being behind the wheel, life on the road has its challenges. From high fuel costs....
Kayla Chavez
00:01:50
$6.85 is the diesel price.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:01:54
To crowded roadways...
Kayla Chavez
00:01:56
There's this one time where I was stuck in traffic for like four or five hours. And I'm not even talking about the traffic moving like an inch, I'm talking about a complete stop.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:02:07
Kayla also says she's had to mentally and physically adapt to spending so much time just sitting still. But in the end, to her, it's all worth it.
Kayla Chavez
00:02:18
I have so many good days trucking and I feel it's because I wake up and the scenery is so beautiful. The skies, I can't, there's no way to describe the skies. The orange, the blue. Being on the road driving, you do get that sense of freedom. You enjoy the winds and you just breathe in. You know, you have that privilege to be able to drive.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:02:47
I think even those of us who don't drive for a living can relate to the highs and the lows of being on the road. The fact is, many of us rely on our cars to get around on a daily basis, especially in places without reliable public transportation. In 2021, American drivers lost an average of 36 hours to traffic. In New York and Chicago, drivers lost more than 100 hours. And traffic analytics firm INRIX says those numbers were even higher before the pandemic. But driving is just one of the tasks many of us just do often without really thinking about how it shapes our lives. So in today's episode, we're exploring how the experiences we have behind the wheel impact our bodies and our minds. And we're going to talk about tips for staying calm and focused on your commute, maybe even enjoying yourself. So buckle up and get ready to hit the road. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent. And it's time to start Chasing Life.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:03:57
While some people like Kayla feel free on the open road, for others, driving brings up some different emotions. So we asked you to call in with your thoughts on the matter. And we heard from a lot of you.
Caller 1
00:04:11
Sitting in the traffic in Seattle, which has been horrendous the past few years, increases my anxiety tenfold.
Caller 2
00:04:20
Just yesterday I was having such a lovely afternoon and proceeded to almost get in an accident by someone who was not paying attention. I just firmly felt that it ruined my day.
Caller 3
00:04:33
I have the worst road rage. I am not proud of it, but I can admit it.
Caller 4
00:04:39
Driving my vehicle around through downtown Atlanta is very stressful. I do end up with a fast heart rate. Sometimes I can't get out of the car and have a full blown anxiety attack.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:04:59
Spending lots of time in the car can take its toll. A 2012 study found links between longer commutes, lower physical activity, higher blood pressure and increased stress. And there's also another side to driving as well, the psychological one. Or, how driving makes us feel.
Dwight Hennessy
00:05:17
Most people don't recognize just how big of a deal driving is. They don't recognize how important it is to their everyday functioning.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:05:28
That's Dwight Hennessy, professor and chair of the psychology department at Buffalo State College. He's also a traffic psychologist, a field that I truthfully didn't even know existed before this interview. But make no mistake, working in this field doesn't mean Professor Hennessey is a fan of cars.
Dwight Hennessy
00:05:47
I have no particular fondness for any of that kind of stuff. And this is probably because I'm not a big fan of driving.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:05:56
I think it's so funny. You're a traffic psychologist you're like "I am not a fan of driving. That's what led me to the field." That's why it's like," I'm a veterinarian. I do not like pets." You know? \.
Dwight Hennessy
00:06:06
[Laughs]
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:06:10
If you're at a gathering of people and people are describing what they do, how do you describe the field? What is the field of traffic psychology?
Dwight Hennessy
00:06:20
Well traffic psychology is is taking psychological principles and applies it to that traffic and transportation context. And so for me, it's about looking at a person's thoughts and feelings and behaviors in a very unique context, something that impacts people everyday, directly and indirectly, that they don't even necessarily realize in a really profound way. And so it changes something about them or it influences something about them that has this long lasting effect that they don't necessarily recognize.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:06:54
You know, it's interesting, as I was even preparing to speak to you today, I was just talking to some friends about this field of traffic psychology. And I'll tell you, Dwight, everyone has something to say about this. It does seem to to touch a nerve for for a lot of people, maybe even more than I expected. How did you get interested in this field of traffic, psychology.
Dwight Hennessy
00:07:16
Personal experience. I had moved from a smallish city to a much bigger city. I moved to Toronto and I -- Toronto has a lot of traffic. It's a wonderful city in many ways, but on any given day, getting to where you need to go can be a real challenge. And it stirred up these feelings for me that I just I wasn't ready for, I wasn't familiar with, I wasn't encountering in my previous life. And this was my first week as a graduate student, and I had a graduate advisor who had been thinking about the traffic environment as this crucial environment in our everyday life. And so it led to some conversations and trying to formalize, for me, essentially: what's wrong with with Hennessy?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:08:07
Did you have a particular goal? This was frustrating to you. Everyone's trying to get to the same place around the same time. Did you want to make a difference, overall, in how we think about traffic or how people, individuals should think about it?
Dwight Hennessy
00:08:22
Yeah, absolutely. I hate to use words self-help, but that's really what it was at the beginning. Like, how do I figure myself out? So, you know, I'm not feeling so stressed all the time. I'm not feeling so agitated all the time. But when we started thinking bigger picture, we realized this is something that so many people encounter. So, the first thing that we do, like good scientists, is start to look, well, what kind of literature is out there? And there wasn't a whole lot of literature at the time about that stress process and the anger, agitation, aggression process. So, that's really what stimulated our our ideas about, ground level, what are the things that might be pushing a person's buttons, so to speak, and and leading them to feel that sense of arousal and irritation and frustration and stress? And what are the consequences of that?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:09:11
Driving is something that most of us do. This is an integral part of our lives -- that driving commute. And people, more times than not, are going to describe it as a stressful part of their their day. Why is that, do you think?
Dwight Hennessy
00:09:27
Yeah, I think there are so many parts to that. There are so many things that are impacting us. We've got to focus attention on other people. We've got things we're anticipating that we've got to do when we get there. There may even be things going on in your vehicle like other kids or conversations that may contribute to this building stress. Most people don't think of how stressful driving is unless they're actually driving. I don't think we reflect enough on how impactful the stress while we drive is on our everyday life. It has a physiological impact on us. Our heart rate, blood pressure, respiration. They change. And, as we continue to experience these stressors, those body resources are constantly being engaged, and those will wear us down eventually. We also increase the risk of psychological things. It might change our mood, our cognition changes. So we might not be as vigilant to things that are going on. And so we might feel more anxiety as these psychological things build. Now we're less tolerant of other people and what they're doing. We're more likely to blame them for being the source of the bad stuff that's happening to us. So now maybe we're angry. And now we're angry, aaybe we need to figure out what to do about that anger. And so we unleash on them.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:10:53
It seems like there's a component of just being more anonymous, too. When you're in your car, you are less likely to be known. You're more likely to be anonymous. And maybe for some people that allows them, or enables them, or empowers them to act in ways that they otherwise wouldn't.
Dwight Hennessy
00:11:13
So we encounter anonymity and other environments, but it's it's different when we drive. So the other people don't know who we are. And so we can do things and and maybe try out things that we wouldn't in other environments. But when you flip that around, we also don't know who they are. And that to us is problematic because it's hard to predict who they are and what they might do. We feel the lost sense of control because of that as well. And I make similar arguments when I talk about the aggression. So anonymity is a big part of why people then translate that stress into aggression. Because I can now do something that other people will not be able to identify who I am. They can't necessarily get back at me. And again, these are things that happen in other environments. It's just they happen on a different scale while we drive.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:12:12
Are there different types of driver personalities? I mean, did you think of it that way?
Dwight Hennessy
00:12:18
There certainly are. That is one of the things that I typically look at. So people talk about angry driver styles and that one's fairly obvious. These are the people who just have more triggers. They get angry more often because of more things and it lasts longer and it impacts so much more about them. But we also have the opposite of that. We have some people who are much more patient drivers. That's just their style. They're very easygoing people. Right. So the personalities and styles aren't necessarily all bad things. When we talk about people's driver styles, there's usually a combination just like personalities, right? We're a mix of things, so I would probably be a mix of anxious driver in some ways...with careful. There are trigger points, and one of them predominantly is when somebody does something really, really dangerous and puts me and my family at risk. And so what we try to do is find, well, what are the parts of our personality that might be really impacting who we are as a driver? Understanding that that traffic environment has some really rich, unique and impactful triggers and stimuli that aren't necessarily things that impact us in other environments.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:13:38
So that, and this is super interesting, is the person you are when you're driving then your true self? Or, do people change?
Dwight Hennessy
00:13:50
In some ways, both. There's a prevailing idea that says you drive the way you live. That's one of the old, old statements that we have from traffic psychology. And there's a truth to that. So, in my area, one of the things that I do is is anger and aggression. So angry people tend to be more angry drivers. aggressive people tend to be more aggressive drivers. So, that's a foundation. But then a person's personality, while we talk about it generally is something that's consistent over time in situations, there really is a situational element to it. So I think about it this way that we all have different parts of ourself that will come out in different contexts depending on the stimuli and the triggers from those environments. So, for example, you might have a part of yourself that comes out more often when you work because the situation dictates that you should be a certain Sanjay on this day, because that's what's expected of you. But then you might go out with your friends and a different part of your personality comes out. My point is that there are things when you get behind the wheel that may be triggering something in you that only come out in that traffic environment or predominately come out in that traffic environment.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:15:06
Whether you're an anxious driver, an angry driver, or highly cautious, knowing your own driver personality and your triggers is probably the first step to feeling more calm and more focused behind the wheel. After the break, Professor Hennessy is going to share his tips for a smoother ride.
Dwight Hennessy
00:15:23
That is the million dollar question. I have to be honest, that's the question I get asked most. Like, what can we do?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:15:31
That's ahead. After this quick break.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:15:42
And now back to Chasing Life. As a trauma neurosurgeon, I've seen firsthand the devastating impact that mistakes while driving can have. I've seen entire families in the operating room because of a crash. It just breaks your heart. That's why I think Professor Hennessey's research is so important.
Dwight Hennessy
00:16:02
I don't think that we should really talk about traffic safety as being safe or unsafe. Because it's a dimension. And so when we say things like, "oh, this is a safe engineering or enforcement or educational kind of process." My response is it's safer, but it doesn't necessarily make it safe because driving is not safe. There's nothing about driving that safe. It's an incredibly dangerous process. We fool ourselves in a lot of ways into believing that it's, quote, safe because it's comforting. It's part of the development of attitudes where it's self-protective because if we thought every second that we drive, we could die, that would be overwhelming. And so, my particular issue with this is because if we talk about things as being, quote, safe, sometimes it may take away, from us, an emphasis on doing the things that are safer.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:17:05
I think that that is such an interesting way of framing it. And I will tell you, I think we probably have dealt with the same thing in terms of teaching our kids to drive or, you know, being being at that sort of stage of life, but also maybe, you know, watching older people, your own parents even driving. But, you know, when I think about my parents, I wonder sometimes I worry about the safety issue and, you know, they're more vulnerable. You know, if they were to get injured, it'd be a bigger issue for them because of their frailty now at this age. But are there cognitive benefits to driving? Is there something good that comes of it for them, do you think?
Dwight Hennessy
00:17:40
For elderly drivers, yeah. I think there's a freedom. Losing a license as an older driver can be really damaging to a person's self-concept. So having that mobility, having that freedom. And not just elderly drivers, I think there's something even for younger drivers. My youngest son has just gotten his own car and he's fairly young for that milestone and he saved his money and he bought it. And to him, there's a pride in that. And I don't mean that in like a negative way, that just it makes him feel good about himself to have invested his money to purchase that thing, to be able to come and go at at his whim rather than rely on me. He wants to have that thing that allows him to be independent.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:18:29
Yeah.
Dwight Hennessy
00:18:29
So so yeah, those are, those are great cognitive things.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:18:32
I think just talking to you, Dwight, it seems like maybe we have similar approaches in terms of how we would think about teaching our kids to drive. You said your youngest just got his own car. But I'm just wondering, you've been doing traffic psychology for a long time, did it affect how you taught your kids to drive?
Dwight Hennessy
00:18:51
My personal take is I think we focus too much on training the mechanics of driving. And don't get me wrong, I'm not saying we shouldn't do that, but I think what we fail to do is train on the psychology of driving, of recognizing and understanding the threats and the danger without going overboard. Like, here's day one: this is this is a machine that could kill you. That's that's too much. That's that's too harsh. They're going to tune that message out. But if you, I think, teach a healthy respect for the possibility that you can be the best driver in the world, but there are other people out there that might not be. And how do you deal with that if you're in a traffic situation? How do you respond if these kinds of things happen? So I think there's absolutely nothing wrong with us teaching how to possibly deal with situations that might never come up.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:19:51
I think that's a such an important point. And I've got to tell you, so both of my parents are automotive engineers. And we had a great love of of cars andto the point where weekends in our garage at home, we would be tinkering with cars. Back when, you know, you could actually look at an engine and know what to do with that. You know, and you pop the hood. So I just grew up with that and I love to drive. My wife is interesting because she grew up in a very different sort of way. She doesn't enjoy it as much as I do. She wants to be out of that environment as quickly as possible. People who find that stressful, are there things you would tell them? Techniques, even, to make it more enjoyable.
Dwight Hennessy
00:20:33
That is the million dollar question. I have to be honest. That's the question I get asked most, like what can we do? And everybody's response, everybody's de-stress is going to be individual. But some of the things that that stress prone drivers can do are things like: plan in advance and, you know, know your routes. Some people will listen to radio traffic reports to avoid the highly congested areas. Some will plan alternate routes or know the alternate routes in advance rather than just kind of wing it as they go along. Honestly, I think the biggest part of dealing with all the elements of ourselves as drivers, whatever our driver personality or driver style ends up being is to self evaluate. To spend some time really figuring out who am I as a driver and being honest and coming to terms with that, so that you can figure out those things. So I think a lot of stress prone drivers endure the stress. They just take the stress, they take it as just a given. I'm going to drive and I'm going to be stressed without really reflecting what can I do to be proactive, to be what's called a problem focused coper rather than a more reactive coper or an emotion focused coper?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:21:59
You know, when I think about the future and I wonder if your head goes here as well, Dwight. Autonomous vehicles are becoming a thing. They got a ways to go. But if we are a predominantly autonomous vehicle society at some point, does that solve some of the problems that you're talking about?
Dwight Hennessy
00:22:19
It certainly solves some of the potential issues. But here, here's where engineering and psychology merge. I think it's important for us not to just figure that we can engineer safety. Again, this is not a shot at engineering. Engineers think like engineers. But in the end, it's humans that have to use that engineering. Because if the idea is that we just get in, tune out and everything is going to be awesome after that, then I think that is is misguided. Because people will figure out how to break rules. People will figure out how to circumvent safety features. They already do that. How do I get the seatbelts hooked up, so that I don't have to wear my seatbelt? So that the light doesn't bother me? Or the sound doesn't keep bugging me, etc.? Right? So people will find a way to to break those those rules. So, it's more than just engineer a safer vehicle.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:23:24
No matter how good the technology gets. We are still human beings, and how we behave as human beings can still be unpredictable. Fascinating conversation. Quick last question, how would you describe what kind of driver you are today?
Dwight Hennessy
00:23:40
Today....
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:23:40
With all you've learned, Dwight.
Dwight Hennessy
00:23:43
Honestly, a lot of people ask me that like, are you a better driver or are are you more aware or stuff like that? And I think the simple answer is yes. The process over the last 25 years has been self-reflective and how do I live out what I'm preaching to other people? But I still have driver flaws. My family would agree. There are still times when I feel anxious when I drive. There's still times when I get angry when I drive. So it's a journey, right? It's not a sudden transformation. So I think what I've tried to do is understand the button pushing, understand the things in the environment that are a challenge to me. How do I think more realistically about other drivers? Because those for me are the predominant triggers. Rather than get completely frustrated, what else can I do? Can I laugh it off? Can I try to understand them as a human being that makes mistakes? And this just happened to me the other day. Apparently, I was too close to the line on an off ramp curve, and somebody felt the need to let me know, even though they were three cars behind me that I had been violating some rule that may be putting somebody else at risk. And so my first thought could be, "listen, jerk, you're three cars behind me." And I could flip out and I could now suddenly be in a completely different headspace and and stressed and anxious and angry. Or I could say, "oh, I can understand why they did that, because maybe they were coming up on me and they.." So, put myself in their shoes to recognize that I do things that push other people's buttons.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:25:28
As Professor Hennessy said, it does take time to feel more comfortable, more confident on the road. But the more positive experiences you have, the easier it gets. So before you take your next drive, here's some tips to keep in mind. Tip number one try listening to your favorite music or podcast.
Dwight Hennessy
00:25:47
So that has that calming effect. It also has the the good distracting effect. So not the distractions so that you don't know what's going on around you and you can't drive. But the distraction from the sources of stress.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:25:59
Tip two: If you can, bring a co-pilot.
Dwight Hennessy
00:26:03
So having somebody give you feedback on some of the things that are happening or just allowing you to vent or just keeping your mind off some of the nonsense that's going on in a traffic environment around you.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:26:18
Tip three: Make the inside of your car as comfortable as possible.
Dwight Hennessy
00:26:23
If you're in a really hot driving environment, that physical stimulation is going to arouse you. So having a comfortable vehicle, and that doesn't mean luxury. Comfortable as in it's it's a place that you're enjoying, so anything that can change your mood. It's called an incompatible response. If you've got something that makes you happy, it's hard at the same time to be angry.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:26:48
And finally, tip four comes to us from Kayla, the long haul trucker we met at the beginning of this episode. When she's on long trips, she passes time and stays focused by noticing the natural beauty all around her.
Kayla Chavez
00:27:01
So for the first 30 minutes of my drive, I don't put on any music, I don't play any podcasts. I just look ahead and I take it all in.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:27:17
I think the idea of finding something to enjoy during your drive, whether it's inside or outside of the car, is a really smart idea. For me, that means taking advantage of the one-on-one time I get with each of my daughters when I'm driving them -- or nowadays -- when they're driving me. It somehow makes the Atlanta traffic, where I live, not so bad. Sometimes we even try our hands at a little carpool karaoke. We're not bad. It's those simple moments that make the ride enjoyable, a positive part of my routine. I often find that's the answer in life -- finding the joy in the everyday. And if any of these tips were helpful for you, or if you have some tips of your own, I'd love to hear about it. Record your thoughts as a voice memo and email them to asksanjay@cnn.com Or give us a call at 470-396-0832 and leave a message. We might even include them on an upcoming episode of the podcast. Chasing Life is a production of CNN Audio. Megan Marcus is our executive producer. Our podcast is produced by Emily Liu, Andrea Kane, Xavier Lopez, Isoke Samuel, Grace Walker and Allison Park. Tommy Bazarian is our engineer. And, a special thanks to Ben Tinker, Amanda Sealy, Carolyn Sung and Nadia Kounang of CNN Health, as well as Rafeena Ahmad, Lindsey Abrams and Courtney Coupe from CNN Audio.