Mental Health & Driving

Tuesday 19th May 2020

Research shows that one in four of us experiences conditions such as depression, anxiety, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) each year.

The reasons vary, including physical illness and past or present experiences – such as COVID-19. But, did you know that our mental health can also be affected by the type of work we do? For example, professional drivers are exposed to several factors which are known to adversely affect psychological well-being, including spending long periods alone, irregular sleep patterns and a diet of convenience food eaten on the go. In turn, any of us who are suffering from mental anguish or illness can become less safe on the roads.

The important thing to remember is that, whilst there may not be a panacea for every situation and condition, there are still some key things every driver can do to protect their mental health.

Get a good night’s rest

The right amount of quality sleep improves vigilance, alertness and concentration

As we get tired our brain slows down and with it our ability to think clearly about the world around us. It can mean we make rash decisions and take chances we wouldn’t normally contemplate. The knock-on effect of this is that one in six road accidents are fatigue related.

It is thought that 30% of us are severely sleep deprived on a regular basis. So if you struggle to get a good night’s rest then it’s worth taking a look at The Mental Health Foundation’s excellent guide on making sure you get enough of the right type of sleep.

Eat a healthy diet

A well-balanced diet supports quick decision making behind the wheel

Just as our heart, stomach and liver need a regular diet of healthy food to function properly, our brain requires the right balance of vitamins, minerals, water, acids, and complex carbohydrates to stay fit and healthy.

In other words, the food we eat can have an impact on our cognitive abilities. This is important because, although driving involves some degree of physical exertion, it is fundamentally a mental exercise. This is borne out by the fact that the average driver makes up to 160 decisions for every mile they drive.

In fairness, it’s not always easy to know which foods we should and shouldn’t eat, and not all of us  can be a king or queen of the kitchen, but you’ll find plenty of brain-boosting recipes online to give you a helping hand.

Keep a good routine

Daily routines help avoid being stressed behind the wheel

Getting behind the wheel while stressed can have a significant impact on our ability to drive safely. In fact, 66% of people say that their driving ability is affected by their state of mind.

There are many causes of stress, especially at the current time when many of us are trying to balance the conflicting demands of working remotely, home schooling, and conducting relationships with family and friends in a virtual world.

Reducing stress isn’t always easy, but our brains are known to benefit from predictable routines because they alleviate anxiety over the unknown.

A good schedule also means that we will be less likely to speed or engage in dangerous driving behaviour because we have set aside the right amount of time to get where we’re going safely.

And, by getting up and going to bed at the same time each day, our body works in harmony with the circadian rhythms that determine brain wave activity and hormone production – both of which can affect our stress levels and ability to drive safely.

Be alcohol and drug aware

Safe driving relies on being in full control of our faculties

When times are hard, or we are coping with difficult and unusual circumstances, it is easy to fall into the habit of drinking more regularly than normal – especially when there’s no morning commute to worry about.

Drinking may be enjoyable and help us relax for a while, but long-term use can actually lower serotonin levels and either cause or exacerbate depression. Serotonin is particularly important because it affects an area of the brain which influences attention and emotion – two factors which can significantly impact our ability to drive safely.

The same is true when it comes to misusing drugs, with those suffering from an addiction roughly twice as likely to experience mood and anxiety disorders. This not only means that illegal recreational drugs should be avoided, care is also needed with prescription depressants, stimulants and opioids which can be damaging to mental health if misused.

Keep the lines of communication open

Help ourselves and others by talking openly and honestly about mental health

The more we talk about mental health, the more accepted it becomes as part of everyday life. Something that is discussed as openly and honestly as physical ailments. And, by removing the stigma associated with conditions such as stress, anxiety, and depression, we create an environment where anyone can seek help when it’s needed and be a source of help, comfort and support to others.

Remember, suffering from a mental health condition doesn’t mean that you can’t drive safely and so it’s important to talk to your friends, family, or work colleagues about how you are feeling. Afterall, it may be that you need to take extra care to avoid things that could make your situation worse, and the people around you can be a great source of help and support in doing this.

Getting Help

Even if you don’t currently feel it is something you are likely to suffer from, either you will at some point in the future, or you know someone who does. This means that now is a great time to get to know more about causes, treatments and preventative measures.

There are plenty of easy to understand resources available from the NHSMind and The Mental Health Foundation. They don’t take long to read and, in doing so, you will be taking the first steps to improving your own mental health and the mental wellbeing of those around you.