Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=194116
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Natalie Brunell/MEDILL

My vantage point each day as I make a 33-mile commute to graduate school: bumpers and bright red lights.


Driving myself crazy: How a long commute can lead to poor health

by Natalie Brunell
Nov 03, 2011


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Natalie Brunell/MEDILL

When it rains in Chicago, my drive time increases anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.

Five ways to reduce stress during your commute

1. Get your workout on - even 30 minutes of exercise a day can reduce the stress you experience during a long sedentary commute.

2. Munch on something - hunger can lead to frustration, so try to pack a few healthy snacks in the car that you can nosh on while you drive - but make sure to avoid items that require silverware.

3. Jam while you cruise - make a CD, playlist or turn on a music station. Feel-good tunes from your favorite artists can boost your mood.

4. Carpool - having someone to talk to will prevent your mind from brewing on any problems in your life.  And if everyone carpooled, there would be less cars on the road to create traffic!

5. The early bird gets the worm - try to leave home a few minutes earlier than you think you'll need to avoid anxiety when the clock is ticking and your meeting begins promptly at 8 a.m. You never know when an accident or bad weather will cause you to get stuck.


Eight-hundred hours.

That’s how long I am on track to spend behind the wheel of my car commuting to and from graduate school in one year. It is equivalent to about 33 days or an entire month.

But if the hours spent cramped in the driver’s seat - frustrated with rubberneckers during accidents and lane shifters who don’t signal - aren’t enough, a new study shows I may really be causing harm to my health by making my Honda my second home.

Swedish researchers found that car, subway and bus commuters suffer from greater levels of stress, exhaustion, lack of sleep and even days missed from work.

“The effects of commuting on health have not been very well studied, even though many people consider commuting stressful,” said researcher Erik Hansson, of Lund University and the lead author of the study. “[Commuting] can also take much time away from health-promoting activities such as relationships and physical exercise.”

The study surveyed 21,000 people between the ages of 18 and 65 and found that the longer the commute by car or public transit, the greater the number of health complaints.

I can relate.

There aren’t many situations in which I feel more stressed than when my foot is switching between the gas and brakes in stop-and-go traffic on Chicago’s I-90 expressway. By the time I hit the Cumberland exit, forget it. My speedometer maxes out at 15 m.p.h.

My mind tends to race when I’m sitting in traffic, bringing to the surface anything that’s been agitating me that week. My heart rate begins to increase (and not just when my favorite Enrique song comes on the radio), and my breathing goes from being deep and relaxing to shallow and unsteady (my yoga instructor would not be pleased).

During rush hours my Civic becomes a magnifying glass shining on any suppressed thoughts and emotions. Not to mention it’s not exactly aerobically stimulating.

And since I wouldn’t spend this much time on the roads if they were clear, I’m obviously not alone.

According to 2009 U.S. Census data, the average commute clocks in at more than 25 minutes each way, and just over 86 percent of Americans drive a car, truck or van to work. That adds up to more than 200 hours a week spent in a vehicle.

My tense car behavior doesn’t surprise psychologist Howard Weissman, founder and clinical director of the Chicago Stress Relief Center located in Northbrook. Some of Weissman’s patients also struggle with health issues related to long commutes to and from Chicago. Their complaints include stress, lower back issues from extended periods of sitting and even road rage.

“There are a couple of major concerns with long commutes,” said Weissman. “What’s causing the stress? Is it the unresolved issues in one’s life that are percolating in the car, or is it the fact of being stagnant and thinking, 'This is a waste of time ... I have other things to do.’”

“It’s the way we talk to ourselves,” he said.

But I wondered, why do I get so stressed out when the destination of my travel is a positive one? In the morning I leave my house in Hoffman Estates at 7 a.m. to get downtown for my journalism classes by 9 a.m. I am working on a degree in a field I am excited about. And when I leave at 5 p.m. to get home by 7 p.m., I’m heading home – my relaxing sanctuary where I can throw on comfortable clothes and maybe watch my favorite TV show before I dive into homework.

“If the commute is long enough and the ride is arduous enough, it will erode even a person's passion and excitement about a job,” said Weissman. “No one is immune to stress.”

So what can be done?

“People need to be mindful and conscientious of how their bodies begin to tighten and clench [during a commute] because these subtleties are the initial stress responses,” said Weissman.

He suggested using the time spent in the car to develop productive and positive conversations with one’s self. If relocating isn’t an option (which for me and many others it is not) it is also helpful to become mentally and physically prepared the night before a commute.

Dressing comfortably, packing a healthy snack to avoid hunger and creating a playlist or CD of your favorite music can all contribute in managing stress levels when the gridlock begins, according to Weissman.

And so, with my Starbucks pumpkin spice latte in my cup holder for sustenance and a playlist featuring Adele and Lady Gaga, I head out once again onto the 33-mile stretch that separates me from my newsroom.

I just hope there are no breaking stories while I’m slamming on my brakes near Cumberland.