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Glenn D. Braunstein, M.D. Headshot

LA Road Warriors: Commuter Stress Taking Its Toll

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How many times have you seen someone rushing into work saying (often preceded by an unprintable word), "Traffic! The commute is killing me." Well, that's not an exaggeration or being overly dramatic. Today's commuting environment isn't just an unpleasant daily reality we have to resign ourselves to; it's a very real health hazard. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American driver logs more than 100 hours a year commuting, and that's for an average trip of about 25 minutes. But for more than 3.3 million people across the country, the journey to and from work is a "stretch commute," a trip of 50 miles or more each way. That constitutes an extended period of stress every day, twice a day, five days a week.

Southern California drivers have known this for years. According to Forbes magazine, Riverside is the worst city in the nation for commuting, with Los Angeles coming in third. But where Los Angeles is the undisputed leader of the pack is on the Commuter Pain Index, a metric from the 2009 Commuter Pain Survey from IBM. Of the main issues cited that create L.A.'s chart-topping commuter stress are increased commute times, incessant start-stop traffic (noted to be the most frustrating part of commuting and especially bad in Los Angeles), increased levels of stress and anger, and a noticeable increase in aggressive and rude drivers. In fact, 41 percent of Los Angeles drivers said that they decided not to make a driving trip in the past month because of anticipated traffic. Not making the trip to work, however, is not an option.

How Stressful Driving Can Impact Your Health

Every time there's a stressor (anything that poses a challenge, whether it's physical, psychological or emotional), the body goes into emergency response mode. The problem with commuting stress is that the stressors are ongoing, and so are the responses.

These can include the release of adrenal stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that can increase blood pressure. In addition, stressful commuting has been associated with musculoskeletal disorders, increased anxiety and hostility, sleep disturbances, obesity and decrease in cognitive performance. The reactions can be as varied as the individuals experiencing the stressors, but in general, stress can impact the brain, digestive tract, lungs, heart, mouth, hair, muscles and skin. It is no wonder that stressful commuting is associated with increased absenteeism and high turnover at work.

It's easy to see why so many commuters surveyed say that rush-hour traffic is the most stressful part of their lives. In fact, research that compared the heart rate and blood pressure of 125 commuters with those of pilots and law enforcement showed that commuter stress rates were higher than fighter pilots going into battle or riot police officers in training exercises, possibly because the pilots and police felt that they had more control over their destinies than did the commuters.

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But no matter where you drive or how long your commute, the most insidious stressor of all is uncertainty: not knowing when you'll arrive, not having control over what's happening on the road, and - if you're driving alone - not having any support. Uncertainty fires the body's emergency stress mechanisms to burn on all cylinders, activating any number of anxiety responses, as well as cardiovascular, respiratory, hormonal and muscular reactions that can leave the commuter exhausted, agitated and ill-equipped to face a day of work.

Stress Reducers are Health Enhancers
Since you can't change what happens outside your car, anything you can do to change your commuting experience and environment can be a lifesaver:

Put time on your side. Having too little of it and too far to go can initiate a variety of stress responses. Give yourself more time, especially in the morning. Do whatever you can the night before. Get gas, make sandwiches, anything. If you know that there is going to be road construction on your route or a traffic-congesting visit from President Obama, plan an alternative route to work.

Get enough sleep. The benefits of a good night's sleep cannot be overestimated in minimizing the physical and emotional toll of commuter stress. Don't drive when angry or upset or overtired as these factors will just compound the stress.

Work out. Try to go to a gym during the day and take the stairs at work. Instead of a 12-flight elevator ride, ride five floors and walk the rest.

Get comfortable. Make your car as comfortable as possible. Use an ergonomic head pillow. Trade talk radio for any music that reduces your anxiety. Try books on tape. Get rid of the stale smell of old fast food wrappers and substitute more pleasant natural scents in your car like peppermint, cinnamon, lemon or sea salt, which may help relax your mood.

Carpool. This doesn't just conserve energy in the environment; it saves your emotional energy. Whatever happens, there's someone there to share the experience with; another reason why people in the carpool lane might be covering ground faster.

Telecommute. It is worthwhile exploring with your employer whether you could spend a day or two a week telecommuting, which will not only reduce your carbon footprint, but will allow you to sleep a little longer, exercise a bit more, or spend more time with your family, all of which will make you a more alert, happier, and probably more productive employee.

More than helpful tips, these are health survival skills to help prevent your mind and body from spiking with hormones and experiencing other potentially debilitating stress reactions. Following this advice might not make your commute shorter, but it can help maintain your health by improving the quality of the drive.