If you drive—and even if you don’t—you can probably relate to these familiar feelings of being in traffic: dread, frustration, anger, anxiety, or other feelings that put you on edge in a situation that seems out of your control. In that moment, it is difficult to see beyond the immediate problem and who or what might be to blame. In a matter of seconds, you might experience a cascade of unpleasant thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations that further agitate and linger even when you arrive at your destination.
Many of us begin and end our day like this, even when we know we will likely be in traffic. Have you ever wondered if it is possible to think, feel, and react differently in situations like these?
Perception Forms Reality
While traffic may be a part of life that is mostly out of our control, we do have a lot of personal influence over how we handle situations that bring up unpleasant emotions like fear, anger, sadness, and impatience. You might have heard the saying, “Perception forms reality.” To explain it another way, our perception (how we view something) informs our experience of reality. Take the example of traffic: What is the reality of the situation apart from our personal experience of it? There are a certain amount of vehicles moving at a particular speed on the road. That is a fact: it is neutral. The people driving the cars respond and might create a certain “story” that goes along with it (“People here just don’t know how to drive”… “What idiots!”… “Every time I go out, I’m late because of this stupid traffic”… “If she didn’t spend so much time in the front of the mirror, we wouldn’t be in this traffic” …the list goes on). While it is completely natural to experience frustrations like these in life, recognizing we do have control over our perception and therefore our experience of reality gives us hope that we can think, feel, and act differently if we choose to.
So, how can we do that?
Turning Problems into Potential
One way is to begin to think of problems as the potential for growth, rather than situations that are arbitrarily cast upon us. Being in traffic literally slows us down. Maybe we can take that time to breathe deeply, pause internally, and think of five things we are grateful for in life. Maybe we can take that time to encourage the people we’re carpooling with, or appreciate a form of nature around us. We can put on an inspiring or educational message. Can you imagine how this might shift what you think and feel at the moment? Using this method can be applied to other areas of life, even ones that have more emotional impact, like a conflict in a relationship, a chronic personal struggle, or a major transition or loss.
Likely, you will find it really does take mental and emotional effort to come up with alternative ways to view your challenge situation. Yet with time, practice, counseling for anxiety, and support, you might discover that looking for the potential in problems comes a little easier. Once you start to experience changes in yourself and benefits to others, the motivation to continue naturally builds.
What is one common challenge in your life you can shift focus in today?