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Life On Wheels

In a Jam . . . and Making the Best of It

June 09, 1988|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

So you're bopping in your Beamer down the Santa Ana Freeway, doing about 60, and it looks as if you're going to make it to that important appointment on time, for once. The stereo's on, the sun is shining, you hit the tanning parlor yesterday and--let's face it--you're looking great. Really. You're rolling. The deal on the condo closes next Thursday and aren't you glad you left Backeast, Ill., and moved to Orange County? Now THIS is the way to . . .

Uh-oh. Not again. A wave of glowing red rolls through the sea of cars up ahead, and by the time it hits the tail of the Mercedes in front of you, your foot is already hovering, ready to land on an increasingly familiar spot: the brake pedal.

You glance at the speedometer: 0. You glance at your watch: 10 minutes. No way are you going to make it.

Your heart pounds. Your breathing becomes rapid and shallow. Your jaw and shoulders tighten. Your stomach feels funny. You're sweating.

You curse. You pound the wheel with your fist. Who are all these people on the road at 10:30 in the morning? Why don't they go back where they came from? And why did they have to pick this particular day to ruin your life?

Nobody needs to read the paper to discover that traffic is a problem in the county. Half the residents surveyed in a recent poll called it their worst headache. At least one hospital's stress unit has a program specifically for helping people deal with the frustrations of driving. And the experts agree that it's going to get worse before it gets better--if it ever does.

Everybody complains about it--well, almost everybody.

Somewhere in that six-lane parking lot sit a few drivers who aren't sweating or cursing. Drivers like Ed McClean.

Wherever he goes, whoever he's with, McClean always offers to drive. He isn't trying to spare anyone else the ordeal of jostling through traffic. Hardly. He wants to reserve that pleasure for himself.

"To me, the freeway's like a grand prix," says McClean, who spent several years commuting from his Mission Viejo home to Brentwood, about 80 miles away--and loving it.

McClean is a salesman for Merrill Lynch Realty in Mission Viejo now, where he still adds about 3,000 miles a month to the odometer of his 1986 Dodge Aries station wagon. But his fondness for the open road--or even the choked-up road --hasn't diminished.

And there's Lauren Jeffers of Seal Beach, who twice a day unwinds on the Garden Grove Freeway.

Or Sue Winn. At one end of her commute--Huntington Harbour--there's a busy household with a husband and four teen-agers. At the other end--Long Beach Community Hospital--there's a hospice program for the terminally ill, and she's the coordinator. Although the work is rewarding, "it's a very emotionally draining, high-stress job," she says. As any parent of teen-agers can attest, the same can often be said for her responsibilities at home.

The pressure of being pulled in both directions left her feeling at times as if she had nothing left for herself. But with the help of a biofeedback therapist, Winn found a refuge that had been there all along: her car.

These folks aren't likely to get to their destinations faster than the rest of us. But when they do, they'll have considerably less wear and tear not only on their psyches but also on their bodies.

The way most of us react to a traffic jam isn't merely unhealthy--it can be downright deadly, traffic accidents aside. There's a relationship between clogged traffic arteries and clogged coronary arteries, according to several county doctors who are spending an increasing amount of their time trying to repair--and prevent--the damage caused by driving stress.

The typical reaction to a life crisis is known as the "fight-or-flight" response, says John Luster, a physician in Orange who emphasizes preventive medicine and stress management in his family practice.

Fight or flight came in handy in caveman days, he says, because "it could help you get away from a saber-toothed tiger. . . . But when you're driving, that response is inappropriate. It has absolutely no function. You're ready to do something instantly, and yet there's absolutely nothing you can do. You're all dressed up with no place to go."

For many of us, Luster says, that condition becomes chronic: "It can be extremely destructive on the body. The long-term effects can be high blood pressure, clogged arteries, chronic tension or migraine headaches, chronic back problems, ulcers and digestive disorders."

And what may seem worse to image-conscious Southern Californians, "the constant stress state," he says, "leads to premature aging of the body."

Luster, who drives from Laguna Beach to Orange every day, plans to follow his own advice that "the best way to deal with stress is to eliminate it, if possible." He is moving to Orange, where his commute will be reduced to a few blocks.

But for those who can't cut down on their driving, he recommends balancing the fight-or-flight response with its natural resolution: relaxation.

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