"Stoplight" exercise...

Photo by Carlos_bcn/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Carlos_bcn/iStock / Getty Images

Think about a time when you were driving to work. Rush hour traffic wasn't too bad, but you were still wondering if you might be just a few minutes late. Suddenly, a car in the lane next to you, veers into your lane! No turn signal, no warning! You luckily noticed it and hit the brakes hard. No collision, and the reckless driver is now speeding ahead, completely oblivious of the accident he almost caused.

But now your heart rate is up, your hands are tightly gripping the steering wheel, you're cursing at the dangerous driver (who of course can't hear you), and you're just plain upset. The body's fight or flight response has kicked in and you're agitated. 

The rest of the drive is fine, but you're still breathing shallow, gritting your teeth, and assuming that every other driver is out to get you. 

You arrive at work and a coworker passing by says "Morning; how are you?" and you respond by angrily saying "Besides the fact that I was almost killed by some moron who cut me off, I'm fine!" You get to your desk, fire up your computer and try to log in, but you're so upset that you type in the wrong password, not just once but three times and now you're locked out and have to call IT to get access. You're starting to get a headache...

The rest of the day your concentration is poor; you're still thinking about the "moron driver" and the incident of the morning. 

You make it through the day and manage an uneventful drive home (although you're half hoping you can spot the guy who cut you off this morning so you can curse him out) and you arrive home without incident.

Your spouse says "Hi, how was your day?" And your response is something like "Lousy; some idiot almost killed me on the drive in this morning!"

So let's think about this a moment. How long did the incident with the inconsiderate driver really last? A few seconds? Maybe 3 or 4? Yes, you had to brake hard to avoid an accident, but everything turned out fine; no accident. Yes, your body and mind went to "high alert" at the moment of the incident but what then? 

Research has shown the the body's response to an incident like this (the chemical reaction making us alert and on guard) lasts about 90 seconds or less. But what happened this time? You kept "feeding" the beast. Although the incident was over is mere seconds you kept feeding your anger. Did that make the other driver magically become a safer driver? No, of course not. Was there any benefit at all to you keeping the state of being upset? No. But was there a downside? Yes! Your concentration was decreased to the point that you couldn't enter the correct password to your computer. You complained about the driver to a coworker just saying "good morning". You probably told a few others about it throughout the day. You kept thinking about it. On the drive home, you imagined scenarios of it happening again, or of seeing that driver and responding somehow. You got home just fine, but had to complain about it to your spouse. 

Not only did you lessen the quality of your day, but you probably made others think "hey, don't bite my head off. I didn't do anything!" and what is worse, you were damaging your health. Your heart rate and blood pressure were elevated all day. You were holding tense muscles. Your digestion was probably even poor!

A variation of this scenario probably happens to all of us more often than we'd like to admit. You may think that it's just a typical response and that there is nothing you can do about it. But you can...

The incident last only a few seconds and the outcome was just fine. Why couldn't you just return your emotional state to what it was prior to the incident? Wouldn't that have made your entire day better?

When this type of thing happens, you can do a simple exercise to quickly calm yourself and get past the emotional upset. It's just a simple breathing exercise that I call the "stoplight" exercise.

Here's how it goes: Right after the incident, first take a deep breath, not forcing it, just a deeper than normal breath in thru your nose. Repeat that a few times. Next, take another deep breath, but exhale slowly, at least twice as long as the inhale. Repeat, each time making your exhales longer. As you exhale bring your attention to your body, especially your hands, and consciously relax them. Keep this up for a few rounds, just focusing on the breathing and relaxing your hands. Then just breathe normally again. If you catch yourself thinking about the "incident" again, do the breathing with slow exhales again. 

With practice, you'll find that doing this will quickly calm you down and help you let any disturbing incident not trouble your mind. You can deal with it, and let it go.

Moreover, try this: every time you come to a stoplight when you're driving, take a few deep breaths and lengthen the time of the exhales. Your exhale should take two or three times as long as your inhale. When the light changes to green, just breathe normally. At the next stoplight, do the breathing exercise again.

If you make this a habit, and do this often as you drive, you'll soon find that you are much calmer and not disturbed by things like poor drivers or traffic jams. You are not letting others determine your state of mind, you are remaining calm and relaxed. You'll be a safer driver, you won't keep feeding any feeling of being upset, and you'll even improve your health. 

Give it a try and see what happens...