Is Road Rage just bad manners?

More than just another media catch phrase, ‘Road Rage’ now describes one of the more recent ‘diseases’ to be foisted upon us by some members of the mental health profession. To make it a little more official, they’ve named our latest affliction ‘Intermittent Explosive Disorder’ (IED for short).

According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, IED might affect nearly 8 percent of the U.S. population. And though road rage isn’t the only form it takes, it is the most easily identifiable. We’ve all experienced it, either in ourselves or in others. People hammer on their horn, display the proverbial ‘finger,’ or shout insults. Or (and this is the important part), you might have FELT like doing these things, but you had enough respect for yourself to not act on those feelings.

It takes more than just getting really mad to qualify for IED. According to the standard psychiatric diagnostic manual, an individual must have had three (count ’em, three) episodes of impulsive aggressiveness ‘grossly out of proportion to any precipitating psychosocial stressor,’ at any time in their life. The person must have ‘all of a sudden lost control and broke or smashed something worth more than a few dollars ‘ hit or tried to hurt someone ‘ or threatened to hit or hurt someone.’ Three times, mind you.

Though some health professionals (and, I’m sure, more than a few crafty lawyers) want to see uncontrolled anger classified as a physical disease, could it really be something else? Like maybe a lack of self-control? We’ve heard for years about the need for ‘anger management,’ implying that people should take responsibility for managing their own anger. They might need professional help, of course, but in the end, a chronically irate person has to take responsibility for curbing his own anger, just as the recovering alcoholic tries to avoid bars, or the compulsive gambler has to stay away from casinos.

Dr. Emil Coccaro, chairman of psychiatry at the University of Chicago’s medical school, begs to differ. “People think [IED is] bad behavior and that you just need an attitude adjustment, but what they don’t know … is that there’s a biology and cognitive science to this.” He cites a two-year National Institutes of Mental Health study that suggested that anywhere from 5 to 7 percent of Americans fit the diagnostic criteria of IED.

OK. So a lot of Americans are angry. Really angry. But does this prove that it’s heredity, hormones and biology? Medical science and the field of psychology cannot answer that question. For people who struggle with anger, the solution (like it or not) is attitude adjustment. Using psychotherapy, or maybe just plain old common sense, people who struggle with anger must learn to say to themselves, ‘I have a choice here. I can explode into rage. Or I can take a deep breath and try to think about it.’ The difference between an IED person and a normal person is that the IED person has to work harder at improving his attitude. It might not be fair, but the IED person really doesn’t have any other choice. There’s no pill to make the anger go away.

On the road, it’s normal and natural to feel a lack of control. Columnist Eric Peters, writing for America Online, suggests that human beings are not psychologically or biologically ‘wired’ for sitting in traffic. ‘We were not bred for this sort of abuse. We have not had time to evolve new mechanisms (such as an internal morphine release gland, let’s say) to cope with an environment our hunter-gatherer systems are completely ill-equipped to deal with.’

It’s an interesting theory. And, as it stands, probably true. But the question remains: How are we supposed to deal ‘in the moment’ with feelings of rage that might stem from a sense of being out of control?

People who regularly cope with traffic tell me things like, ‘I put on my favorite music, or a book on tape’ Or they give themselves extra time. Or, ‘I simply accept what I can’t control.’ Sometimes they plan their activities at less busy times, or even consider relocating. Either way, there ARE solutions; we just have to look for them. The fact that we can’t control traffic doesn’t automatically mean that we still don’t have control over ourselves.

Accepting what you cannot control, and getting to work on what you can control, marks the foundation of successful attitude adjustment. Those who cope better with anger and rage (the majority, according to NIMH) have either successfully adjusted their attitudes and behaviors, or had better attitudes to begin with.

Labeling every distasteful trait and destructive behavior as a ‘disease’ opens up a Pandora’s Box of needless medications, ridiculous legal defense strategies, and phony excuses. We can avoid all this by ‘curing’ ourselves through the power of independent thought and accepting responsibility for our own actions.