You're sailing down the highway, singing along with the Beach Boys and feeling as carefree as a proverbial Surfer Girl (or Boy).
With the ocean on your mind, you round a bend — and are suddenly in a red sea. Taillights as far as the horizon.
Even if you knew a traffic jam was inevitable — say, if you chose to head down the Shore on a Friday afternoon between now and Labor Day — it's disconcerting when a roadway becomes a parking lot. It's also anxiety-producing, especially if your destination is actually an important business meeting.
Granted, we're luckier than drivers of yore. The E-ZPass has cut down on toll-booth delays, and most of today's cars have air conditioning — something only about 20 percent of autos in the U.S. had in 1960. Today's vehicles are also so efficient that we're unlikely to see steam emanating from the hood as we're idling in traffic.
"Basically, a car built today would run out of gas before it would overheat," says Gene Costello, co-owner of Ringwood's Skyline Service Center.
Even if your car is unlikely to overheat, though, your blood may boil. And that's not good.
"There's enough evidence that stress not only affects your mood, but it can cause depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes," says Dr. Diego Coira, chairman of the Department of Psychology and Behavioral Medicine at Hackensack University Medical Center. "So by controlling your stress, you can control your blood pressure and many, many physical ailments."
And so, as we head into bumper-to-bumper season, here are some tips to help us sit through Jersey jams without making ourselves sick.
1. Accept the situation. "First and foremost, I think you just have to acknowledge that you're gonna be stuck, and if you get anxious or irritated or annoyed, it's not going to make the traffic move any faster," says Lillie Coleman, the anxiety department program coordinator at West Bergen Mental Healthcare.
2. Take Faith Hill's advice. Breathe. Just breathe — "in through the nose and exhale through the nose," advises Rose Fitzgerald, co-director of Yoga Synthesis in Ramsey. "And release any tension as you're exhaling. It could be like a sigh."
And focus on your breathing, says Coira, as well as on "any kind of object that you can see — a building, a tree, a flower. Just pay attention to that image and concentrate on your breathing."
3. Avoid "catastrophic thinking." Instead of telling yourself " 'I'm going to be late to work and they're going to fire me,' " Coira says, "use a counter-thought: 'I may be late to work, but I've been a good employee for 15 years. They're not gonna fire me.' "
4. Use a mantra. Fitzgerald says a mantra could be a sound, syllable, word or group of words, which you repeat over and over. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk, used "present moment, perfect moment," Fitzgerald says.
5. Call ahead. Whether you're late for work, a party or dinner at home, "if you can call to let them know that you are in a traffic jam, that would reduce your stress," says Dr. Nieves Cuervo, a psychiatrist who practices in Fort Lee as well as at St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center's Outpatient Mental Health Center. Note: If you have a cellphone, you'd have to pull over, so as not to violate state law.
6. Listen to music. Cuervo says, "Some people advise that you listen to a mellow classical station to calm you down. Others [suggest] more upbeat music. Whatever works for you."
7. Be prepared. Coleman, who often gets stuck in traffic during her long commute home from her office in Ramsey, says, "I always have books on CD in my car, so that focus kind of distracts you from the traffic." If you regularly have kids with you, make sure to have things to entertain them as well.
And keep a stash of snacks. "When you're hungry, you're more irritable, and that leads to more stress," Coleman says. "So … I think it's important to have granola bars or almonds or something in the glove box."
8. Keep your car ready, too. "Make sure you have a full tank of gas. Check your fluid levels," says Costello.
9. Take a break. If you can get to the next exit and find a diner or café, this little detour could be a helpful refresher, Cuervo says.
10. Consider turning the car off. In New Jersey, you're not supposed to idle for more than three minutes, but "if you're stopped in traffic, that's not considered idling," says Tim Franco, president of the New Jersey Police Traffic Officers Association. Nonetheless, he adds, "if you're in a situation where, let's say there's a crash and the road is closed, if you want to save fuel, you can turn your vehicle off."
For live traffic information, visit northjersey.com/traffic