If you dread your commute, you’re not alone. Billions of people start and end their workday stuck in traffic, waiting for a train, or crammed into a crowded bus—and it takes a toll on their well-being.
“Long commuting times, especially those lasting over an hour, have the worst effect on personal well-being,” says Maureen Magauran, M.D., a physician who specializes in treating anxiety and depression. “That’s because the stress that’s triggered raises cortisol levels, which can put you at risk for anxiety, digestive problems, headaches, and even issues with sleep.” The key, says Magauran, is to make your commute as stress-free as possible.
While you might not choose your commute, you can choose where you put your attention. And whether you spend that time calming your mind and body, flexing your gratitude muscle, or listening to something exciting, make sure you use that time in a way that’s intentional and sets you up for a productive day or an easy transition home.
Here are the biggest commuting problems—and how to solve them.
Problem: It’s stressful—and you’re tense
Solution: Do a body scan
A tough or crowded commute can put a strain on your body. One way to ease that tension, says Magauran, is to do a body scan. “It helps you mindfully relieve stress,” she explains, “rather than let it accumulate.”
1. Do a quick body sweep. “Notice what pops into your awareness,” says Magauran. Does your neck feel tight? Are you gripping the steering wheel or slumped in your seat? Adjust your posture so you’re more comfortable.
2. Mindfully scan each body part. Start with your head: Do you feel a sense of pressure or heaviness? Feel your jaw. Is it tight? Continue down through the body, through your neck, shoulders, lower back, your hips, your abdomen—all the way down to your toes.
3. Breathe deeply into the tight spots and soften each muscle as you exhale. If you’re not driving and can close your eyes, even better!
Problem: It’s crowded—and you’re frustrated
Solution: Look through a gratitude lens
When you get stuck in traffic or elbow your way onto the commuter train, it’s easy to feel like it’s you versus the world—but this mindset only makes an often unavoidable situation even more frustrating. If you can change the way you think about your commute, you can change your experience.
For example, when confidence and speaking coach Linda Ugelow is driving through traffic, rather than focusing on everything and everyone in her way, she practices gratitude for the what is working in her favor: the car keeping her safe, the road taking her where she needs to go.
Then, she does a compassion meditation (safe to do while driving!), which turns those positive feelings outwards.
“I look at the people in their cars or on the street, and I say special person in my mind as I pass them. I wish them peace and love and appreciation,” she says. “I know it might sound a little weird, but I actually get a kind of high off this! It makes me feel safe and grounded.”
Problem: It’s a downer—and you’re irritated
Solution: Follow your nose
Essential oils can have a powerful effect on mood. Dorene Peterson, founder and president of the American College of Healthcare Sciences, has over 35 years of experience in aromatherapy. Her top picks for mood-boosting oils include bergamot and lavender—and it’s not just because they smell nice.
-In one study, teachers who followed a 10-minute-long weekly inhalation of bergamot oil experienced a significant reduction of blood pressure and heart rate and a more balanced autonomic nervous system.
–Lavender oil was shown in another study to reduce cortisol—which plays a central role in the body’s response to stress.
Problem: It’s boring
Solution: Get hooked
With the rise of smartphones, there are plenty of ways to pass the time—but not all diversions are created equal. Listening to (or reading, depending on whose eyes are on the road) just anything doesn’t mean you’ll feel better. In fact, only three minutes of negative news increases your chance of having a bad day by 27 percent.
However, when you can get lost in a compelling narrative, your commute time becomes a lot more enjoyable. So rather than scrolling aimlessly, try something with a bit more staying power. With a new golden age of podcasts and millions of audiobooks available, there is plenty of positive content to keep you feeling good.
Terri Trespicio is an award-winning writer, speaker, and a long-time media expert on health and well-being. She was one of the early contributors to meQuilibrium, and her work has been featured on Dr. Oz, Oprah magazine, Prevention, and MindBodyGreen, among others. Find her on Twitter @TerriT.