Road Rage, Where Does it Come From?

Road-Rage-Where-Does-it-Come-From

Road rage can be deadly. In 2021, a young mother was driving her 6-year-old son to kindergarten in Orange County, California, when a white sedan abruptly cut her off in the carpool lane. The mother, Joanna Cloonan, gave the other driver the middle finger as she merged away from the carpool lane. Then she heard a loud noise and her son, Aiden Leos, said “Ow.” When she pulled the car over, Cloonan saw that her son had been shot. She called 911 and the boy was rushed to the hospital, but sadly, he couldn’t be saved. The 6-year-old died in a senseless road rage incident.

In an interview with “Good Morning America” following the road rage shooting, Cloonan described her son, saying, “He was beautiful and he was kind and he was precious, and you killed him for no reason.”

The young boy’s mother will never be the same. Her life will be forever impacted by the emotional trauma of the horrific killing of her child. “He meant the world to me, and it feels like my life is over,” Cloonan said. “That was my baby. I’ve never, never thought pain like this could exist.”

Bad drivers, traffic jams, road construction, detours, and other delays can make anyone feel anxious, angry, frustrated, or stressed. But what happens in the brain to make some drivers become so enraged they snap?

ROAD RAGE, A COMMON PROBLEM

The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) defines road rage as aggressive or violent behaviors stemming from a driver’s uncontrolled anger at the actions of another motorist. Road rage is more common than you might imagine, causing nearly 1 in 3 traffic accidents and leading to a shocking 30 murders every year, according to the latest statistics.

Nobody likes being the victim of aggressive behavior while you’re behind the wheel, and it can make you feel anxious or angry. About half of all drivers who are the victim of road rage behavior respond aggressively by making a rude gesture, shouting, honking their horn, tailgating, or flashing their lights. In some cases, such as with the tragic shooting of 6-year-old Aiden Leos, this leads to an escalation of rage and aggressive behavior.

ROAD RAGE AND THE BRAIN

The human brain is involved in everything you think, do, and feel. And it’s involved in every decision you make while driving. The brain SPECT imaging work at Amen Clinics shows that when there is abnormal activity in certain areas of the brain, it may contribute to anger, impulsivity, violent behavior, and other issues associated with road rage. Here’s a look at what SPECT reveals about 3 important brain systems that can play a role in road rage behavior.

The brain SPECT imaging work at Amen Clinics, shows that when there is abnormal activity in certain areas of the brain, it may contribute to anger, impulsivity, violent behavior, and other issues associated with road rage. Click To Tweet

1. Anterior Cingulate Gyrus (ACG)

The ACG and surrounding areas of the frontal lobes are involved in shifting your attention from one thing to another. When the ACG is working effectively you’re more able to roll with the circumstances of the day. However, if this part of the brain works too hard, there’s a tendency to get locked into negative thoughts or behaviors.

Something happens to some drivers when they get behind the wheel of a car; a territorial animal comes growling to the surface. When another driver makes an unsafe move, they can’t just express frustration, call the person a bad name, and continue driving. Instead, the anger festers, and they get locked into a course of aggressive action—swearing, gesturing, chasing, or harassing the other driver. This is due to trouble with shifting attention.

Some examples of attention shifting issues in the ACG brain include:

  • Getting stuck on ineffective thoughts and behavior patterns
  • Argumentativeness
  • Oppositional behavior
  • Holding onto hurts from the past
  • Excessive worrying

2. Temporal lobes

The temporal lobes are located on either side of the brain below the temples and behind the eyes. The temporal lobes are involved in emotional stability and mood control among other important processes. Brain imaging scans show that when there is abnormal activity in this area, it can be associated with temper problems, aggressive behavior, emotional outbursts, and violence. Abnormal activity in the temporal lobes is often seen in people with a condition called intermittent explosive disorder as well as in murderers.

3. Prefrontal Cortex (PFC)

Located in the front part of the brain, the PFC is involved in impulse control, planning, judgment, empathy, and more. On SPECT scans, low activity in the PFC is linked to impulsivity, poor judgment, and trouble with planning. These issues can make a person do something or say something they shouldn’t that they will regret later.

A CASE STUDY IN ROAD RAGE

Be careful when you notice yourself or another driver becoming furious with road rage. It can quickly turn into a downward spiral.

For example, look at this 37-year-old male attorney. When other drivers cut him off, he would chase them, and on two occasions, he got out of his car and bashed in their windows with a baseball bat. After the second incident, he came to Amen Clinics. He said, “If I don’t get help for this, I’m sure to end up in jail.”

His brain SPECT imaging scan revealed two abnormal findings:

  • Increased activity in the ACG brain causing him to get locked into negative thoughts and actions.
  • Left temporal lobe hyperactivity, which correlated with angry outbursts.

Following recommendations to optimize activity in the ACG and temporal lobes helped him gain better control over his anger and avoid future road rage issues.

CALM YOUR BRAIN WHEN ROAD RAGE STRIKES

When a road rage incident begins, remind yourself that you are responsible for your actions and take steps to diffuse the situation. If you’re getting angry or find yourself thinking about engaging in aggressive driving behaviors, follow these tips.

  • pull your car over in a safe place
  • take a few deep breaths
  • turn on soothing music
  • mouth “I’m sorry” to the other driver
  • allow enough space for the other driver to pass you
  • think about the consequences of your actions (damage to one or more vehicles, physical harm, and legal issues)

On a day-to-day basis, you can minimize the risk of road rage by working to optimize your brain function. If you’re suffering from uncontrolled anger or violent behaviors, or you’re getting into trouble by impulsively saying or doing the wrong thing, seek treatment and consider getting a brain scan to find out if there is abnormal activity. With a treatment plan that is targeted to your individual brain’s needs, you can stabilize your emotions and behaviors for a more peaceful life—even when you’re on the road.

Anger, aggression, violent outbursts, and other mental health issues can’t wait. During these uncertain times, your mental well-being is more important than ever and waiting until life gets back to “normal” is likely to make your symptoms worsen over time.

At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

4 Comments

  1. My son was riding with me and during a conversation got angry quickly and grabbed the steering wheel. I was able to stir my truck to the side and he jumped out and sterted running into the field. Luckly a policeman on his way home saw him and stopped. Long story short we made it home. About a week later he had another anger outburst and the police were called. Four months later he got angry with someone he thought was blocking his car in the parking lot so he sped out and driving around 80mph he missed a turn and ended up in some guide wires. He is lucky to be alive. Is this a seretonin problem?

    Comment by Kay — January 30, 2017 @ 7:37 PM

  2. you are describing me. I screamed in my car the other night when the other driver, coming straight toward me at an intersection, signaled a left turn the very moment he turned! I was both frightened and angry. Usually I love to drive and feel happy in my car. In the last few weeks I am globally angry just around home. I take offense and continue to suffer after getting my feelings hurt. I bounced a rent check in HUD housing the first time in 5-1/2 years and the manager (I hate her!) says I must pay with a money order for the rest of my life! And while HUD facilities are supposed to accept cash, she smiles and says no, company policy! Then she tells me someone with my name and SSN has been working at a pizza parlor and as a security guard. And I’m on hold for 40 minutes to ask Social Security what to do about it. I go to a knitting group where the women actually said my beautiful socks needed some color or design. They’re no-nonsense wool boot socks for people at Standing Rock. I’m not getting much respect. And I can’t afford your treatment unless I could get it as a veteran. I appreciate that you sent me the book.

    Comment by Mimi Routh — January 30, 2017 @ 9:53 PM

  3. Hi Kay, Please take his situation seriously that needs processional evaluation ASAP because this type of behavior puts his life or others in jeopardy.There may be a serotonin deficiency or a neurotransmitter problem in his brain. Suggest to him to soon make a appointment to discuss these problematic situations with his Family Practitioner who will recommend tests & a Behavioral Health specialist to evaluate and diagnose him also prescribe for him a needed treatment plan.

    Comment by Carol Bainbridge — January 31, 2017 @ 9:15 AM

  4. Dr Amen -As a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, I’ve noted anger/rage issues in various people and recognized it was just low blood sugar/hunger! In the middle of an argument, I’d give an ex a glass of OJ. 5-10 min later, he was apologizing for being a jerk/raging. Another partner would be ugly, and when I’d ask, “When’s the last time you’ve eaten?” – he’d reply, “hmmm, haven’t eaten today.” He started to recognize his own anger coming up, and would reply with, “I need to eat something!” We’d call “time out” until blood sugar went up. When it comes to road rage, think of morning and afternoon commutes. If coffee and no food =low sugar. 6 pm- maybe no food since lunch=low sugar. I strongly suggest people have a decent snack 1/2 hour before driving! I think it would reduce road rage significantly.

    Comment by Jan — July 12, 2017 @ 9:13 AM

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