Road trip mindfulness

This month I needed to take a road trip that had me driving six hours a day four days in a five day period. Once, years ago, that would not have been a problem for me, but after a particularly trying time in the fall of 2012, driving has triggered some of my worst anxiety attacks. Several automobile breakdowns in a short amount of time (leading to credit card bills for repairs, bills that are still not fully paid), along with other emotional losses at the same time, have made time behind the wheel somewhat of a nightmare for me.

Last year I learned about “mindfulness,” an effort to deal with anxiety and stress by living in the moment, observing and experiencing what is happening without allowing it to become a burden. I decided, therefore, to try to make this road trip an opportunity to practice mindfulness. Combined with prayer—asking for help along the way, and expressing thanks for each successful segment of the journey—mindfulness (I hoped) would overcome the anxiety attached to this necessary driving.

Part of mindfulness is awareness of breathing. Whenever I felt tension welling from within, I made sure that I was taking slow deep breaths. Surprisingly, that helped.

Part of mindfulness is noticing things as they happen. From experience over the past several years, I know that one portion of the trip is particularly stressful. The pavement is in bad condition, and a stiff wind prevails from the west. The car always feels out of control on that section of the road, as if a tire is going flat or the car’s steering is malfunctioning. Usually I grit my teeth and bear with the rough section, but this time I paid more attention to the actual symptoms of wind and pavement that made the car feel out of order. That also helped.

I also remained aware of the physical sensations of my body. When possible, I used cruise control so my right leg did not have to remain in the same position for hours at a time. I scheduled stops midway through each day’s driving where I could walk around for a few minutes to relieve the pain of sitting in the driver’s seat. Merely concentrating attention on pain in my knees and lower back helped me to remain more calm, not allowing that pain to travel through my body and tighten other muscles.

I also made sure to pay attention to the scenery—the flowers along the road, the leaves emerging on the trees, and the birds circling in the air. Traveling north and south was like time travel, seeing different stages of springtime changes in different parts of the country.

Naturally I paid attention to the other vehicles on the road. For a while on the first day, I made predictions about what I would see. (“I will see a bright blue car at the next rest stop.” Well, there were no blue cars there, but a truck cab at that stop was bright blue.) By the last day, my game had become hopelessly complicated. During the last three hours, I kept a countdown of twenty-five different vehicles according to color—sixteen colors of cars, and nine colors of truck cabs. At the same time, I kept track of the yellow cars I saw, aiming for twenty-five of them as well. (They had to be private vehicles—no taxis, school buses, or delivery trucks. Generally, I counted them as private if they had no words printed on the sides of the vehicles. Yellow pick-up trucks only counted if they were solid yellow with no words.) Surprisingly, I saw all twenty-five colors in those three hours, and I saw my twenty-fifth yellow car just a few blocks away from home.

With mindfulness and thankfulness, I was able to endure a trip that was relatively calm and stress-free. I would not want to try it again any time soon, but at least I made it there and back again without a total emotional breakdown. J.

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