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Mental-health experts share coping tips to try before taking the wheel

07/17/2012 4:14 PM

07/18/2012 2:34 PM

Orange is supposed to be a happy color -- at least that's what armchair psychologists say.

But many Fort Worth-area motorists would be thrilled if they went the rest of their lives without eyeballing another orange barrel, especially the kind found in highway work zones.

Road construction is seemingly everywhere these days in North Texas, especially on the western side of Dallas-Fort Worth. The Texas Department of Transportation says much of the work will be completed by 2015, and perhaps then commuters will cheer about all the extra space on the roads, cleaner air and shorter travel times.

But meanwhile, all those dirt holes, gravel mountains and concrete jersey barriers have created an atmosphere that for many drivers is downright depressing. While some people are coping with the congestion using relaxation techniques, others are waving the white flag and forgoing nonessential trips. One otherwise devout driver reportedly even gave up trying to get to church on a recent morning because the trip was too arduous and unpredictable -- even on a Sunday.

Others are expressing their virtual road rage through social media.

"Just got back from a few days in Fort Worth and even my detours had detours!" Kristie Aylett, who now lives in Ocean Springs, Miss., wrote on Facebook after a recent return visit to Fort Worth, where she lived from 1986 to 2004. "Progress is one thing, but the amount of road construction was downright painful."

Traffic can have a very real psychological impact on stressed-out motorists, mental-health professionals say.

It can be a serious problem, especially among motorists who already have a diagnosed mental illness, said Diana C. Valdez, a west Fort Worth psychotherapist.

"It can be almost like post-traumatic stress disorder," Valdez said. "I had one veteran who, every time he would see a piece of debris, it would remind him of a roadside bomb."

But in many other cases, it's a less serious depression that affects otherwise healthy motorists, a bit like seasonal affective disorder (also known as SAD), a fairly common malady in areas with long periods of winter weather in which people essentially become bummed out because they miss being exposed to sunshine.

For motorists who wish to return to the days when there was lane space for everybody, perhaps a new phrase can be coined: traffic affective disorder, or TAD.

"In heavy traffic and heavy construction, people tend to grip the wheel tighter," Valdez said. "Then they get from point A to point B, and they wonder why they're so tired or why their muscles hurt."

Miles to go

In Tarrant County alone, major projects include construction of a new 28-mile toll road, Chisholm Trail Parkway, from Interstate 30 near downtown Fort Worth to Cleburne, as well as the $2.5 billion North Tarrant Express project, which includes the expansion of Loop 820 and Texas 121/183 in Northeast Tarrant County.

In Grapevine, the $1 billion DFW Connector project includes expansion of the Texas 114/121 corridor near the north entrance of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport -- a corridor that, when completed, will be a whopping 24 lanes at its widest point.

For those who venture into north Dallas, the LBJ Express project includes the reconstruction of existing lanes and addition of toll lanes on Interstate 635.

And across the region, there are smaller but no less cumbersome projects, including the expansion of Texas 26 in Colleyville and Golden Triangle Boulevard in the far north Fort Worth-Keller area.

In a rare bit of good news, motorists learned last week that the closure of the West Berry Street/South University Drive intersection in southwest Fort Worth would open three weeks earlier than scheduled because workers were able to get the job done quickly. The busy intersection had been closed since June 10 as part of an effort to modernize Berry Street's driving lanes, turn lanes and sidewalks.

Last month, Keith Robinson used his artistic talent to vent his frustration about traffic.

Robinson, who creates graphics for KTVT/Channel 11, came across a Fort Worth logo featuring the city's name and famed longhorns, and decided to embellish it with an image of an orange cone. The image went viral as fed-up motorists shared it on their Facebook pages.

"I just thought a traffic pylon would fit perfectly over the steer's head," said Robinson, who lives near the Hulen Street bridge in southwest Fort Worth and deals with the daily headaches of lane closures related to the Chisholm Trail Parkway project. "So I put my Photoshop skills to work and posted it on my Facebook page."

Studies have shown a direct link between traffic stress and aggressive behavior, particularly among men, said Blaine Moore, a Fort Worth therapist.

One study showed that motorists sometimes display anger that appears to be unprovoked. Evidence shows that in some cases these drivers are experiencing a delayed reaction from an earlier traffic jam.

In other cases, drivers are acting out behind the wheel for frustrations that have little to do with traffic.

"Traffic congestion and traffic accidents can be a function of that time pressure," Moore said. "You're later getting to work, not spending enough time with the family. Men in particular don't handle that anxiety as well as women. They'll try to do more to get around the construction."

Traffic also can trigger depression, especially in women, he said.

"Women with young kids will struggle with the guilt of not being with their kids -- that anxiety of getting stuck in traffic when you should be at home," he said.

No one tonic cures the impact of traffic on mental health, he said. But some good advice is to "regulate your expectations."

"If you're aware that you're in Tarrant County and you accept that traffic will be there, it is a kind of mindset," Moore said.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson

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