Of all the things that cause us stress and anxiety -- a heavy workload, financial woes and a cluttered home, to name a few -- commuting to work is one of the most universally loathed. And it's not just an unpleasant experience: Long commutes have been linked to a number of negative health outcomes, including high stress levels, poor sleep, unhealthy weight, and even a shorter life. A 2011 Swedish study also found that couples where one partner commutes for at least 45 to work each day have a 40 percent higher chance of getting divorced.
"Commuting is ... a mundane task about as pleasurable as assembling flat-pack furniture or getting your license renewed, and you have to do it every day," Annie Lowrey wrote in a Slate article, "Your Commute Is Killing You," after the Swedish study was published. "If you are commuting, you are not spending quality time with your loved ones. You are not exercising, doing challenging work, having sex, petting your dog, or playing with your kids (or your Wii)."
But your commute doesn't have to be the bane of your existence -- this time slot when you're free to not do anything (except get yourself from point A to point B) can actually be one of the most relaxing parts of your day. Reframing the way you view the trip and trying some healthy tips can turn your commute from a twice-daily source of stress into a peaceful time to yourself between the demands of work and home. Scroll through the list below for six ways to de-stress (and maybe even enjoy) your commute.
1. Take control over your commuting decisions.
Thinking about a situation differently can help reduce stress in many many circumstances, whether at work or while commuting. You can feel a greater sense of control over your commute and minimize anxiety by simply reminding yourself that the length of the trip is the product of your own decisions about where you live and work, according to Dr. Frank Ghinassi, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.
"The attribution is that it's the traffic that's making us anxious," Ghinassi tells The Huffington Post. "But the control over whether we're going to be engaged in traffic is really ours. We've made lots of decisions ... over things that we can control, and the tradeoff is exposing ourselves to traffic."
If you've considered the other alternatives to your current commute (Would it be possible to bike to work, or carpool with a colleague?) and settled on a daily routine, keep in mind that this is your own choice -- and remember all the other benefits of those choices, like a comfortable home or a job you enjoy.
2. Find enjoyable activities to pass the time.
A daily commute can be a peaceful "hammock" of time between other obligations, says Ghinassi -- but only if we choose to see it that way. Whether your commute is stressful or relaxing is entirely dependent on the conceptions and thoughts you have about how you're going to use that time.
"Once you're in traffic, it can be perceived as a horrible, time-wasting event," says Ghinassi. "Some people see it the way I just described, and others see it as a perfect time to spend time on the phone (hands-free, hopefully) talking to loved ones, listening to books on tape. People who commute in trains often use that time to catch up on sleep or a favorite novel. Others see it as an oasis of time when work isn't bothering them and they haven't yet gotten re-immersed in home activities."
3. De-stress with a "Sounds and Thoughts Meditation."
Whether it's the whiz of the freeway or strangers talking near you on the subway, the noisy distractions of your commute can easily add to your anxiety levels. But consciously paying attention to these noises can rob them of their power, according to Dr. Danny Penman, author of Mindfulness: Finding Peace In A Frantic World.
On your next morning bus or train ride to work, try Penman's "Sounds and Thoughts Meditation." (Click here for full instructions and a downloadable audio guide.) The meditation can help lower stress levels by silencing the mind and focusing your attention on the thoughts in your mind and sounds around you, without judging or trying to "fix" them. Or, if you're driving, simply focus on the road while taking note of the sounds around you and observing the thoughts arising in your mind.
4. Listen to classical music.
The so-called "Mozart Effect" could actually make your commute a better one. Before cranking up talk radio or classic rock, consider cueing up a playlist of classical songs on your headphones or car stereo. According to a Populus survey of 2,000 drivers, classical and pop music fans are more relaxed drivers, whereas those who listen to rock and metal are more prone to road rage.
A number of studies have shown relaxing music can help to decrease anxiety. Research has shown that soothing songs can lower the anxiety levels of pre-operative patients, and a 2007 study also found that for adolescents, listening to either classical or self-selected soothing music was effective in decreasing anxiety and boosting feelings of relaxation after exposure to a stressor. Try it on your next morning drive to see if you notice a difference.
5. Use your commute as an opportunity to be more mindful.
It can be easy to get stuck in a loop of negative emotions during a long commute when you might be feeling impatient about waiting in traffic, or worried about things going on at work. But your commute is actually a perfect chunk of time to gently bring your awareness to thoughts and feelings, without judgment -- or in other words, to practice mindfulness.
As the meditation experts at mindfulness app Headspace recommend, try "Being mindful of your environment and the tendency to resist it; being mindful of the emotions as they rise and fall, come and go ... mindful of wanting to be somewhere else, of wishing time away; and mindful of wanting to scream out loud or put your foot down in the car."
Many of us spend the majority of our waking lives plugged into technology -- and it could be raising our stress levels and negatively affecting our health. Spending some time tech-free can benefit our mental and physical health, and it might make your commute more pleasant.
Your commute may be the one part of the business day when you can disconnect. Whether you're driving in your car or sitting on the subway, take advantage of that daily opportunity to unplug and recharge. Instead of checking your email and Twitter, texting friends, or making work calls, try powering down your phone until you get home or to the office. Once it becomes a habit, you may actually come to look forward to this tech-free time to read, meditate, reflect, or just be mindful.