My Commute Made Me a Stress Monster—Here's How I Fixed It

Now, I look forward to the drive. I'm not kidding.

I used to swear a lot.

Specifically, I swore a lot last year, when my daily commute started chipping away at my sanity.

Each morning, I would roll into work already stressed out, a product of my frenzied, traffic-choked efforts to get to the office. Each evening, I would arrive home just… done. Cooked. Finished. And as a result, I snapped more at my husband and my 2- and 5-year-old boys. I mean, sometimes they deserved it. (Let us never speak of the orange-crayon-in-the-dryer incident again.) But most of the time, not really.

Apparently, I wasn't alone, either. Piles of research show that difficult commutes create or compound stress and anxiety—especially if you travel by car. They do a number on sleep, weight, physical activity, blood pressure and cardiovascular health, too. And in general, the longer the commute, the worse the effects on your health.

So, something had to change—and it did. These days, things are different, and fixing my commute is a big part of that. Here's what happened.

Dissecting my commute

I had a problem. And to begin addressing my problem, I needed to understand its scope, pinpoint exactly what was stressing me out and work towards a realistic solution.

First, I embarked on a fact-finding mission. For almost a month, I tracked my commute. Using my phone's stopwatch, I recorded the duration. Using the manual stress tracker on the Sharecare app, available for iOS and Android, I noted how I felt before and afterward. A few weeks later, I came to two conclusions:

  • My commute was longer than I realized. It averaged 69 minutes one way, or 138 minutes per day. By the end of the year, accounting for holidays and time off, I'd spent almost 23 full days getting to and from work. Yeesh.
  • Only half of my trip stressed me out—and it wasn't the half where I rode a clean, punctual commuter train. Nope. It was the half where I drove to work on Route 3, one of New Jersey's most frightening and famously congested highways. Have you ever been to a roller derby? Route 3 is exactly the same, only everyone's in a leased BMW and listening to Bon Jovi.

Once I understood my stressors—the lost time and the drive—I looked for ways to make them less nerve-wracking. Some external factors simply couldn't be changed, including the traffic, my route and my departure time. My kids have to be dropped off at school at 7:30, for example, which meant leaving the house earlier was out of the question. And good luck changing New Jersey traffic patterns, or getting anyone in the Garden State to use a turn signal.

That meant I had to examine my own behavior—and figure out what I could fix.

Finding workable solutions

As it turned out, I had two pretty bad commuting habits:

  • I didn't eat before I got in the car, which meant I drove hungry.
  • I flipped quickly through radio stations for the duration of each drive, looking for music I liked/that wasn't Bon Jovi. It divided my attention and helped put me on edge.

The food solution was easy. I started eating something small in the mornings—a banana, a few nuts, my kids' leftover toast (sorry not sorry)—and bringing a snack from work in the evenings. Happily, after a Twizzler or two, I was far less tempted to ram my CRV into the median.

The radio solution was tougher. I love music, and my commute is one of the only times I can enjoy songs for grown-ups. But something had to change. So, for one week, I listened to a different podcast each day. Each podcast was at least an hour long, and I wasn't allowed to turn it off.

And you know what? It worked. It worked shockingly, wonderfully well. The podcasts gave me something to concentrate on for 30 and 40 minutes at a time, distracting me from both the length of my commute and the all-consuming frustration of driving in Northern New Jersey. I even laughed a few times, a pleasant change from my usual enraged grumbling.

Driving forward

Since my experiment ended, I've continued snacking before my commute and listening to podcasts. It's made me substantially calmer before work, and my kids have appreciated the overall drop in yelling. Most days, I even look forward to getting in the car.

And, as mentioned, I don't swear as much now, either. It's a work in progress. Maybe I can find a podcast about it.

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