Six Tips for Minimizing Commuting Stress

Mark Sagor


Commuter StressIt’s not your imagination. It’s a hard cold fact. Researchers at Texas A&M, after collecting data on auto speeds on most major roads every 15 minutes every day of the year, have concluded in their 2012 Annual Urban Mobility Report that traffic congestion is wicked bad.

To be more precise, the average commuter loses 38 hours – nearly a week of work or vacation- per year to traffic delays. Count yourself lucky if you don’t live in the worst city for traffic delays -Washington, D.C.- because commuters there are losing 67 hours of their lives every year to road congestion. Adding environmental insult to this injury, you are spewing a few hundred pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere while you are immobilized and stewing on one of these major arteries of rush hour futility.

Why is this so maddening? Psychologists have developed the idea of impedance- the blocking or thwarting of movement and goal attainment- to describe how traffic congestion leads to higher levels of stress. When you want to get somewhere and something – say traffic- gets in the way, your nervous system is built to signal you that something is wrong. You experience this “signal”, consisting of elevated blood pressure, heart rate and higher levels of chemicals (like cortisol) associated with stress, as frustration and irritation

Even worse, the stress doesn’t end when you get out of the car. The obstructive and frustrating affect of traffic often continues long after we reach our work or home destination. Commuting stress is associated with higher blood pressure, lower frustration tolerance, more negative mood, more work absences, more colds and flu independent of work absences and lower home and job satisfaction.

These are not the only negative consequences awaiting you on your daily commute. Sometimes a driver’s psychological simmering will boil over and become something more acutely dangerous: road rage. Road rage can occur when the irritations of impedance become amplified by the perceived rudeness and ineptitude of other drivers. A driver in the grip of road rage becomes temporarily deranged and takes risks that put their lives, and the lives of others, in jeopardy. Two tons of accelerating metal in the service of an angry and bruised ego.

So what can you do? The traffic, like the weather, is beyond your control but there are ways to mitigate the impact of the stress that accompanies it.

  1. Listen to audio books. My experience is that a good book in traffic works really well to focus you on something other than the experience of being delayed.
  2. Stretch. Reduce your tension by relaxing your muscles. When you are stopped tilt your right ear down toward your right shoulder to stretch the left side of your neck, breathe deeply and hold the stretch for ten seconds. Repeat on the other side. Remember to breathe deeply.
  3. Red Light Meditation. When you see a red light or stop sign, instead of automatically taking it as a cue to be irritated, consciously take a deep breath and smile and say to yourself “STOP” rushing. Use this moment to refocus and appreciate something about the moment: look closely at the sky or listen to music for example. (Developed by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh)
  4. Be From The Land Of “I Don’t Know”  Avoid speculating (and obsessing) about the inner motives, character, morality or circumstances of the driver that just cut in front of you. Let it go. Tell yourself you really don’t know, or need to know, anything about this stranger’s life.
  5. Keep munchies and water available in your car. Being hungry and thirsty will amplify the psychological stress of feeling impeded.
  6. Avoid eye contact with agitated drivers. You don’t know them and you don’t want to know them. Let karma take care of it; it’s not your job.

Commuting is something you do repeatedly and if you can develop good habits the payoff is multiplied many times over. When small changes become habits by being repeated they can add up to big gains in reducing stress.

Please leave a comment if you would like to share one of your commuting tips.