Snow season is upon us. Boston sees roughly 45 inches of snow each year, and even more accumulates across the commonwealth, so driving in winter conditions can be a wicked stressful experience.
“Winter conditions can make driving really scary for some people,” said Eleana Conway, a nurse practitioner who manages Lahey’s health improvement programs. She also founded Restore Meditation, where she teaches mindfulness. “Driving in snow and ice may be second nature if you’re from around here, but for others, it can bring up emotions of fear or nervousness. Add to that stress and pressure from a crazy work day, and the whole idea can seem terrifying.”
So how can you practice winter driving safety when the snowflakes fall and the streets take on that dangerously glossy sheen? The first step is remembering that when you drive, your full attention needs to be on the road. Still, it’s possible to be 100 percent present while driving and practice mindfulness at the same time, Conway says. It just takes some practice to master the next seven tricks.
1. Acknowledge that driving can be challenging.
Some drivers just aren’t considerate. They’ll cut you off, tailgate you or engage in intimidating behavior that’ll leave you less than calm. So drive carefully and defensively in winter conditions.
Storms of emotions and thoughts can distract you from driving carefully. Whether you’re rushing to a party with friends or simply trying to make it into the office after a blizzard, winter weather can add to your stress. Be aware of any distractions that could take your focus off the road and do your best to leave them at the curb.
If it’s your cell phone that’s distracting you while you’re driving, put it down. Not only is it illegal in Massachusetts to use your cell phone while driving (unless it’s in hands-free mode), it also makes driving more stressful and more dangerous.
2. Accept that it’s actually happening.
It’s not unusual to want to be anywhere else when you’re driving — especially when you’re white-knuckling your steering wheel as you crawl along icy roads. But daydreaming is a dangerous distraction. It can make your anxiety worse, like pouring gasoline on a fire. Inattention can cause you to miss that hard-to-see exit, not allow yourself enough time to stop on the ice or cause an otherwise avoidable accident.
So go with the flow. Accept the conditions for what they are. Your anxiety will settle down, and you’ll feel calmer and more capable of handling the winter road conditions.
3. Find a way to stay calm.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, says that mindfulness can lead to calmness when you learn to pay attention in a particular way. Being present in the moment — that is, simply knowing what you’re doing while you’re doing it — makes you more aware of what’s going on around you, which can help you manage stress.
So instead of getting hot under the collar because you’re stuck behind yet another snowplow, Conway suggests taking stock of your breathing. When you follow your breaths, it has a way of rooting you in the present moment. Try taking five or 10 deep breaths before you start your drive. This will calm and balance you, and leave you better prepared to handle any curveballs the winter weather has in store.
4. Hold your emotions with kindness.
If winter driving scares you, don’t push those feelings away. Pay attention to them. Hold your emotions with kindness, and remember to have compassion for yourself. Remind yourself that it’s OK to feel this way.
Self-compassion can be immediately relaxing; it calms your brain and puts your life into clear perspective. Imagine shaking a snow globe and watching the tiny particles of glitter swirl around. Picture yourself inside the snowglobe, and those particles as your thoughts. As they spiral around you, it gets difficult to see and think clearly. The more energy you put into resisting or fighting, the more chaotic things get. If you don’t add any energy, the glitter can settle and you’ll gain clarity and mental focus.
So don’t panic when you see the snow fall. Take a breath. Tell yourself: You can do this.
5. Be compassionate.
When someone cuts you off, it’s easy to think, “What a jerk!” (It might be even easier to say it out loud.)
Driving can be stressful, but it can also be a great opportunity to practice kindness. Consider the person behind that other wheel, and what might be going on in their life that’s making them so rude. Maybe it’s the same stress and winter driving frustrations that you’re dealing with.
So if someone cuts you off, don’t curse them out. Wish them well. Try saying to them, “May you be well. May you be happy.”
Remember, we all share the road. It’s important that we do our part to keep it safe for everyone.
6. Warm up before driving.
Your car needs to warm up before a winter drive, and so do you. Before you set off, combat your anxiety by taking three deep breaths. Be aware as your breath enters your lungs, nostrils and belly. Then, really let go on each exhale. And don’t worry about if you’re breathing too fast. Just breathe. Soon enough, you’ll be ready to start your drive from a peaceful place, not a stressful one, and you’ll be better able to handle inclement conditions and road rage-addled drivers.
Don’t practice repetitive breathing while driving, though. Remember: Your focus needs to be on the road.
7. See the beauty in the jam.
Traffic jams will happen in inclement weather. When you’re stuck in one place, don’t get irritated. Try practicing openness and accept the traffic as it is. Notice what you are doing right now and what is in front of you. Take a look at the design of the tail lights of the car in front of you. Notice the state on its license plate. Or simply listen to the sounds of the road and the wind. Sure, maybe you’re late to that meeting or party, but know that everything will be OK and you’ll get there when you get there. And chances are that you’ll be in good company with others who were held up, too. So take these moments to relax, breathe and to enjoy the beauty in the things that you don’t usually notice.
Once you’ve committed to practicing mindfulness, there’s nothing winter weather conditions can throw at you that you can’t handle. If you need more winter driving safety tips, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation can provide them and much more helpful information.
For information on our upcoming eight week mindfulness programs, check out our website.