About 86 percent of American workers commute to the office by car—which means about 86 percent of us are more stressed than we’d like to be. According to research just published in Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, drivers have more stressful commutes than those who walk, bike or ride public transit, and enjoy the commute less than cyclists and walkers—not surprising, considering you rarely see walkers cutting each other off or flipping the bird.
And although the study of 3,800 McGill University students, faculty and staff found that drivers budget an extra 21 minutes of commuting time to deal with traffic, it’s those completely expected “unexpected delays” that stress them out the most.
Driving can be so stressful, in fact, that a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Audi found that drivers’ heart rates, face movements and other health vitals were given a stress level similar to that of a person skydiving.
Of course, all that daily stress is bad for you—longer commutes are linked to decreased physical activity and cardiovascular fitness, as well as higher blood pressure, body weight, waist circumference and metabolic risks. But there’s plenty you can do to create a calmer commute—and become a healthier, happier commuter. Keep reading for seven ways drivers can de-stress:
SWITCH TO PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION.
Not only are public transportation commuters less stressed than drivers, they have lowerbody mass indexes and body fat, too. And making the switch from car commuting has benefits, too—after giving up commuting by car, people reported being under less strain and being better able to concentrate at work. Can’t make a full switch to a public transit commute? Try to find ways of working it in where and when you can—even if it’s only a few days a week. Drive to a train station and take a train or bus the rest of the way to your office, or choose one weekday to go car-free…even if it takes a little longer to get there.
Although less than 10 percent of commuters do it according to the 2013 Census, carpooling isn’t just better for the environment—it’s good for your mental health, too. A 2008 study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that commuting can cut into time spent socializing, leaving some feeling isolated and depressed. Organize a carpool group with coworkers to spread out the stress of driving and get a little more socializing time in at the same time.
ADD A WALK OR BIKE RIDE.
Commuters who walk and bike are happier, sleep better and are better able to deal with their problems than people who drive, according to a huge 18-year study of data carried out by University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School and the Center for Health Economics at the University of York. If biking or walking the full route isn’t possible, consider walking or pedaling over to a train or bus station. No public transportation nearby? Meet your carpool crew a couple of miles from home.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT PLAYLIST.
Singing along to guilty-pleasure pop songs during your commute is definitely a blast—but if you’re looking to blast stress, make sure to thrown in a few mellower songs. A study by Phillips Research Laboratories in Eindhoven, The Netherlands and Stanford University found that abruptly switching to downbeat music was linked to fewer driving mistakes and greater physiological calmness in high-demand driving situations—hello, rush hour traffic.
ASK FOR FLEX TIME.
If your boss is on board, working out a schedule that has you working from home a few days a week or working four 10-hour days instead of five eight-hour days can have a major impact on your health if you have a commute from the office to home that’s longer than 90 minutes. Once commuters hit that hour and a half mark, they’re more likely to spend time worrying, less likely to have experienced enjoyment the previous day and less likely to feel well-rested that day, according to Gallup reports.
CHANGE UP YOUR AIR FRESHENER.
Forget new-car smell—it’s lavender that will benefit your commute. Toss the pine air freshener and replace it with lavender—the plant has been shown to slow activity in the nervous system, reduce anxiety and promote relaxation.
It makes sense—mindfulness is all about being in the present moment, which is the way you should be driving anyway. Yet the car commute is often spent making mental to-do lists, having (and winning) imaginary arguments, stressing about work deadlines and cursing traffic. Next time you get in the car, try not to let your mind wander—stay in the present moment. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress, improve focus and decrease emotional reactivity—all good things to have on the road.