Under Pressure

Nerve-racking traffic. Insensitive dispatchers. Days alone away from home. With such irritants making trucking one of the most stressful jobs, you can’t afford to ignore the sources of stress – or the best ways to respond.

Terry White, an owner-operator for Hull Trucking in Old Appleton, Mo., says the pressure to keep working creates the most stress in his life. “I don’t turn down loads. I have got to work,” White says. “We’re out here basically working for nothing, and that means we have got to run. You live with the pressure, and you don’t think about it very much.”

Many hard-working truckers, like White, do not recognize stress to be much of a problem. That in itself is a problem because the first step in regaining control of a stress-filled work life is recognizing that too much stress can cause serious emotional and physical harm. Experts agree that managing stress is not about controlling where stress comes from, but learning to control your response to it. There may be little you can do to change dispatch’s mind or raise freight rates or educate careless four-wheelers, but you can learn to deal with such stressors. As you do, you’ll discover that you’re more in control of your job. Your mental and emotional well-being will improve.

“Truck drivers are particularly vulnerable to psychological disorders since they experience higher levels of stress than those employed in other occupations,” say Tracey Bernard, Linda Bouck and Wendy Young in an article for the Electronic Library of Construction Occupational Health. The sources of those unusually high stress levels include irregular sleep, unrealistic delivery schedules, fatigue, poor diet, lack of exercise, long periods away from family and friends, and lack of control over work conditions.

Like many of his peers, trucker Norm Ruff is slow to acknowledge stress as a specific condition, though he’s quick to note some common stress sources. In his 40 years of trucking, Ruff says, he’s rarely heard of problems being labeled as stress.

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“The only guys I know who use the word probably got it from watching a lot of TV,” he says. “I hauled a lot of steel, and what really got to me was having to wait all night and half the day to get a load out of the plant on Second Avenue in Pittsburgh and then finding out it was only going to Cleveland. We used to say the dispatcher must have gone to liars’ college.”

Ruff’s biggest stressor is getting cut off in traffic. “Even worse, there are people out there who will play with you, speeding up or slowing down to keep you from changing lanes or getting off at an exit. There’s nothing that makes me more angry,” he says.

The American Medical Association calls stress the number one cause of preventable disease. Like high blood pressure, stress wears you down over time. While a certain amount of stress is normal, constantly building tension can break down your immune system, cause muscle cramps and affect quality of sleep. It can prompt dangerous reactions, such as road rage. Long-term, unrelieved stress is a factor in heart disease, hypertension, stroke, sexual dysfunction and other ailments.

Stress can cause constant anger or depression, both of which “can scar heart tissue and release toxins from the spleen into the blood,” says Richard Hawk, a trucking consultant and health expert. Other effects are muscle tension and an inability to concentrate, which can be dangerous for the professional driver who needs to remain focused and relatively relaxed for hours at a time. “There is a link between stress and accidents,” notes consultant Carmen Daecher. Ignoring stress and its effects, in other words, increases your risk of a serious disease or accident.

Hawk says that many owner-operators take better care of their trucks than they do of themselves, which makes little sense considering that your truck is replaceable, but your health is not. It is critical that you listen to your body, as well as your mind, just as you check your truck’s gauges for warnings of problems under the hood. If you notice elevated water temperature, you try to discover its cause. In the same way, signs such as increasing muscle tension, rising anger and erratic driving behavior can be symptoms of stress.

The first step, then, in establishing control over stress is to identify its causes, says Daecher. For example, retired owner-operator Carl Cushman of East Palestine, Ohio, says traffic always pushed his stress button. “People who cut me off drive me crazy,” Cushman says. “Talk about road rage. I’ve heard stories about drivers pushing four-wheelers through intersections to get back at them for playing with them in traffic.”

Once you have named the roots of your stress, Daecher suggests making a list of stressors about which you can do nothing, and another list of stressors you can avoid or control. For instance, you cannot avoid erratic behavior in other drivers, but you can avoid losing track of your fuel tax payment. Remember, however, that you can always control your reaction to either type of stressor: “Focus on the solutions and not the problems,” Daecher advises. “Don’t overreact. And take control of situations that produce stress.”

Once you have identified stress sources and have begun to practice healthy responses to them, you are on the way to better overall health. You have to be the one to initiate such change, because stress, like fatigue, is discounted in an industry that sometimes promotes productivity at the expense of personal health.

Also, there is a touchy-feely aspect to stress management many drivers find laughable or feminine. In some cases, a simple concern for basic good health – physical, mental or emotional – is overlooked or becomes an object of scorn. “Simply being open to the possibility that you can help yourself by trying to get in tune with your emotional and physical state can help,” Hawk observes. Be willing to change your lifestyle and your negative thought processes. Being able to drop old attitudes that stand in the way of self knowledge is key.


As important as understanding the impact stress has on your life is learning how to deal with immediate stressors, such as erratic drivers, and long-term stressors, such as the dispatcher from hell. Stress comes automatically; relieving it requires a conscious effort. Stress experts suggest these strategies, some of which you can do while driving:

1. BREATHE DEEPLY. Fold your hands below the rib cage. Inhale deeply and hold to the count of four. Exhale completely and visualize tension leaving your body. As you continue the deep breathing, concentrate on parts of your body, beginning perhaps with the hands and working up the spine to the neck and head, then down the legs to the feet. This exercise is most effective when practiced daily. Three to five minutes is usually enough, but you can take as long as you like.

2. MEDITATE AND VISUALIZE. Close your eyes and concentrate on a neutral thought as you follow the rising and falling of each breath. Then use your imagination to let that neutral place grow into any vision you find pleasant. In other words, create a vision of your perfect environment and place yourself in it.

3. PRAY. Believers live longer than those who do not have an active faith. Barring religious faith, you can find comfort in finding something to believe in that is bigger than you are. It could be a dream of the house you want to build or putting your kids through college. Give yourself something to work for beyond the next settlement check.

4. LAUGH. Yogis sometimes smile purposely and then make themselves laugh even though nothing is funny at the moment. It might seem silly, but it’s beneficial because the physical nature of laughter has healing qualities. Need extra help? Bring a comedy tape or CD for the road; if you have satellite radio, check out a comedy channel.

5. EXERCISE. Stimulating blood flow helps reduce stress. A few minutes of stretching vigorously will release tension and give you energy. Exercising enough to accelerate your heart rate and breathing for 20 to 30 minutes a day will give even better results, including lengthening your life span. Rather than simply stopping a half-hour for coffee, take five extra minutes to do toe touches, torso twists and some isometrics, such as pulling on your front bumper or pushing against a brick wall. Or walk briskly once or twice around the perimeter of the truck stop. Even if you’re old and soft, research shows it’s never too late to start exercising. Consult your doctor before getting serious about exercise if you’re out of shape.

6. STAY HYDRATED. “When you’re stressed, the body expects you to bleed,” says trucking consultant Richard Hawk. “Water helps the body respond without damaging itself.” Lack of water contributes to many unhealthy conditions. Don’t assume you should feel thirsty before taking in water; doctors recommend drinking at least five or six 8-ounce glasses a day. Always carry water in your cab. It’s much better for you than coffee and soft drinks.

7. REACH OUT. You know how easy it is to spend days saying nothing more than “Coffee, please.” Maybe you don’t feel like the caring and sharing type, but that’s not the point. The longer you deny you have an emotional side to your life, the more likely stress will work its black magic on you. Try talking it up with those you meet in truck stops or at your carrier’s headquarters. When you’re stressed behind the wheel, call a family member or friend on your cell phone. Just a few minutes of contact with someone who knows you well can knock the props out from a serious bout of stress.

8. AVOID CONFLICT. Much stress cannot be avoided, but most confrontations can be. For example, 62 percent of drivers said the behavior of another motorist had been a threat in the last year, according to a 1997 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study. Add to irresponsible drivers other sources of stress in trucking, such as bad weather, tight delivery schedules and tight finances, and chances are something will set you off. It is these hot buttons you must discover and manage. If road rage is your most common response to stress, it may have more to do with latent anger bubbling over and a lack of self-control than with the inflammatory incident itself. Don’t respond to crude gestures and erratic driving with inappropriate behavior of your own.

9. GET ORGANIZED. You can’t fully escape the stress of running an owner-operator business, but the tension it causes can be avoided to some extent. Staying organized can defuse a great deal of stress before it grabs hold. Having your business affairs in order and understanding a balance sheet will provide you with real control over your daily operations. For example, if your finances are organized to the point that you’re saving for inevitable maintenance costs, you can accept that next repair as just another cost of doing business, not the end of the world.

10. ACCEPT HELP. Talking over stress-related problems with a counselor can help, and might require only one or two visits. If your wife works, she might have the benefit of an employee assistance program that provides free counseling to employees’ families. Or if your carrier makes any similar resource available to owner-operators, take advantage of it. Many cities have organizations that offer basic counseling services to all by using a sliding fee scale based on income.


Experts say there are at least eight categories of stress. Understanding them can help you know what problems to expect as well as know how to manage your responses.

COGNITIVE. Unrealistic expectations about yourself and others can create disappointment and anger. You may expect less sleep of yourself than is healthy, for example, or you may expect your wife to handle the kids without your help. Rethinking expectations can help solve certain problems.

SOCIAL. These stressors include a change in status in your community or in friendships. The lack of respect shown to truck drivers in general may be a source of stress for those drivers who recognize their true worth to society and cannot reconcile the attitude of the public with the reality.

FAMILY. For an owner-operator who spends long periods away from home, family relationships can become a source of stress rather than a blessing. Carrying a family problem in your mind while on the road can distract you from driving and create a groundswell of stress that makes small irritations seem mountainous.

WORK. “Job stress is more strongly associated with health complaints than is any other life stressor – more so than even financial problems or family problems,” says material from the St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Co. The schedules, isolation, frustrations and lifestyle restrictions of an owner-operator, especially in long-haul, create an unusually high share of job-related stress.

TRANSITIONAL. Some stressors involve personal changes, such as a divorce, a birth or death, or professional changes, such as a new dispatcher or an unexpected change in delivery schedule. Major changes often bring emotional and physical consequences.

CHEMICAL. Sometimes a stressed person consumes alcohol or drugs. He may drink coffee to excess. He may eat comfort foods constantly rather than eating balanced meals. Such consumtion might seem like a way to alleviate stress, but it generally makes it worse.

PHYSICAL. Trucking is low-stress during the hours when you’re fresh and the road is straight and clean. But too much of a good thing is not good. The restriction and gradual tension of 10 hours behind the wheel, (11 beginning Jan. 1) tends to produce stiffness, soreness and fatigue. Combine this with an irregular schedule, a lack of restful sleep and a lack of exercise, and it takes a toll on your body and mind.

ENVIRONMENTAL. Constant noise and vibration can turn your work and living space into a hotbox of stress despite truck makers’ best efforts to keep the cab quiet and rattle-free. Cigarette smoking in the closed space of a cab is perhaps the most harmful environmental stressor. The inhalation of diesel fumes is causing new concern among health professionals.

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