3 ways to deal with a stressful commute

Eric Ho
Table of Contents

We are all aware of how important it is to reduce chronic stress – the big elephant in the room of our modern lives. But it’s easy to overlook the stress you endure from your daily commute. Read on to find out more about how to address three key causes of stress as you travel to and from work.

There’s no shortage of good information you can find informing you of the importance of reducing chronic stress, whether that comes from work or at home.

Whilst a lot of the stress you might suffer at work comes from being at work, have you paused to think about what stress your daily commute is contributing?

And by stress, I’m not just talking about the psychological stresses that well up inside you, for example, because you’re running late for an important meeting. It’s also about the ones that are causing inflammation, and impacting your physiology, and your body’s ability to be its best.

Here are three key commuter stressors to watch out for, and my top tips for what you can do about them.

1. Learn how to “un-rush” to work

When you have a busy day with a packed schedule, it’s natural to want to keep your commute as short as possible.

But most likely you find your stress levels rising quickly when your best laid plans are jeopardised. You have an important 8:00 am meeting to attend, but today:

  • there’s a signal failure on your train route
  • traffic is heavier than normal
  • the kids have been slow to get ready
  • there’s a strike affecting your journey
  • you’ve got a puncture, or your bicycle chain has come off.

Or you may just be one of those commuters who finds everyone else too slow for you:

  • you run to catch the train as the doors are closing
  • you get irritated by the people in front of you – usually tourists – who meander as if time is not money!

If this is you, experiment with this:

Rather than focusing on the fact you will be late, experiment with a different approach, switch off your autopilot, and gently remind yourself to return back to the present moment. Here’s some suggestions for how.

If you’re on public transport, on a bike or in a car:

  • Turn off your mobile device and focus on your journey.
  • Be aware of your posture, the pressure of your feet on the floor, your body making contact with the seat, the temperature around you. 
  • Notice what parts of your body are tense or relaxed. 
  • What is your breathing like? 
  • Use a beginner’s mind to see your old route with fresh eyes. 
  • Name to yourself the new things you see on your route. Perhaps the colour of the clothes other commuters are wearing

If you’re on foot:

  • Look around you and silently naming to yourself at least three things that you see, smell, hear, taste, or touch – perhaps it’s the smell of the blossom, or the brightness of the blue sky, the sound of birds, the sun on your face.
  • My art teacher always told us when we were walking to look behind us, and look up. When you do that, what do you observe?
  • If you’re walking try synchronising your breath with your steps. 
  • If you’re running, count a set number of breaths that matches the rhythm of your running (eg inhale for 3 steps, exhale for 4. Stick to an odd total number so that you’re alternating the first exhale of each cycle – it will help avoid imbalances in the leg you strike the ground with)
  • Feel your feet touching the ground. Feel your arms swinging and your body in motion.
  • If you feel awkward or weird, simply notice that experience, and observe it with a curious mind.
  • If your mind wanders off (“what’s for dinner tonight?”, “have I sent that email?”), come back to noticing each step, your breath, and the sights and sounds around you.

2. Minimise your noise pollution

Much of my commuting has been on the London Underground. Even with some welcome investment to replacing rolling stock and screeching rails, it doesn’t eliminate the noise your ears endure. The more noise, the more your brain has to process and work hard to filter it out. 

Noise on your commute is a stressor.

And it’s not just the Tube, buses ding at every stop, lorries thunder by you walking on the pavement.

If you recognise that, experiment with this:

Think about the things that you can change about your commute to minimise your exposure to noise pollution.

  • divert your journey through a park, so you hear, instead, the birds chirping and leaves rustling
  • take a riverboat so you hear, instead, the sounds of splashing waves
  • listen to white noise – there are some great apps that play background noises (like a running stream, or a rustling leaves) to defuse the noises going on immediately around you 
  • wear noise cancelling earphones – if the noise is really bad, you might want to put earplugs in as well!

3. Minimise your exposure to environmental toxins

Many of us who commute to work are unfortunate enough to experience high levels of air pollution.  If you’re one of the 4.8 million passengers travelling on the London Underground each day, your journey is equivalent to smoking several cigarettes a day. When I lived in Beijing, the outdoor pollution levels often exceeded the EU’s safe limits many times over.

Air pollution is another stressor for your body to deal with, a source of inflammation that is best reduced to a minimum a level as possible.

If your daily commute involves poor air quality, experiment with this:

  • take a shower in the evening to wash away all the surface pollution you’ve been wading through. At a minimum, wash your face.
  • take a nose bath. There are lots of ways of doing that, but make sure you’re using a sterile saline solution to minimise irritation whilst flushing out as many of the pollutants that are lining your nasal cavity
  • filter your air at home. If you can, make the air where you spend your time relaxing and sleeping as clean as possible. 
  • filter your air at work. You may need to investigate the air quality in your office and what systems it has to purify the air. Consider installing a small portable device that you can place on your work surface to provide local.
  • wear a mask. You could try a charcoal-filter mask, but the science isn’t really clear that they do the job that’s advertised!

None of these suggestions alone is the magic bullet, but by doing as many as you can and stacking them, they’ll bring a cumulative benefit.

I hope you find these useful. 

If you have any tips, please share them below!

Be healthy, be wise, be well!


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