For its part, the latest Annual Traffic Measurement Report published by Inrix in 2020 and which studies congestion in many countries places the average hours lost behind the wheel in our country at 18: with Zaragoza at the top (27), Palma de Mallorca with 23, followed by Madrid, Badajoz, Cartagena and Girona with an average of between 18 and 15. A very significant figure if one takes into account that this was also the year of confinement.
Beyond the delays they continually cause, traffic jams have consequences that can directly affect our physical and mental health . Specialists include them within the group of so-called ‘micro- stressors ‘ , that is to say, small problems that frequently added together cause stressful situations and psychological alteration. In turn, the symptoms associated with this stress can include headaches, irritability, loss of concentration, decreased alertness, strong anxiety, drowsiness and even tachycardias and arrhythmias.
To date, several scientific studies have tried to find out how traffic jams influence us on a psychological level. One of them, carried out by researchers at the University of California , confirmed that negative responses to daily stresses, such as labor disputes, couple arguments and hours of waiting in a traffic jam, can lead to disorders of the state of long-term encouragement .
In this case, the researchers analyzed 711 people between the ages of 25 and 74 in order to assess the mental health implications of small everyday events to which we conferred a negative meaning. Each participant had to report the most stressful situations they had experienced during the last ten years.
After eight intense sessions with each person, the researchers found that those who reported a greater number of stressful events also had higher rates of anxiety, depression, distress, and trouble controlling anger . For the authors, therefore, these tensions would be like small drops that fall little by little until they end up overflowing the glass.
On the other hand, another interesting study carried out by British researchers for the Tom Tom company verified stress levels by measuring the concentration of stress markers in saliva both before and after suffering a traffic jam. While in the case of women the levels rose by 9% when they got out of the traffic jam, in the case of men they increased by more than 60% . The experts explained that this happens because in a stressful situation, men usually react with a quick attack or flight response, something that is impossible in the case of traffic jams, giving rise to such a marked increase in these levels.
What is the worst consequence of keeping these levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) high for a long time? Well, the immune system is weakened causing memory problems, irritability and affecting our ability to learn , something that in the long run can take a toll on our health and make us more vulnerable to developing a mood disorder.
There is already talk of the so-called Traffic Stress Syndrome , which affects those people who frequently face traffic jams and can cause symptoms such as headache, loss of concentration, breathing difficulties, rapid heart beat or anxiety. Traffic jams could also be a trigger for intermittent explosive traffic , which is characterized by a disproportionate reaction of anger and rage that can even be accompanied by aggression towards neighboring drivers and a lack of self-control.
Can something be done so that traffic jams damage our mental health as little as possible? Experts recommend, above all, three tips: promote emotions and positive thoughts while driving that generate peace of mind at the wheel, also empathy (one of the best way to protect our lives and that of others) and patience . And of course, also avoid taking the car if we find ourselves in an emotionally unstable situation due to a previous tense mood such as an upset or an argument.
When traffic jams are unfortunately part of the daily routine, it is also advisable to try to leave early, rest well before taking the car and check the traffic situation in case it is possible to take alternative routes.