Is Your Commute Bringing You Down? Here’s How to Cope

Kristen Domonell Fact Checked
Mercer Mess traffic
Angela Cabotaje

Cost of living may have officially beaten out traffic as the most terrible thing about living in Seattle, but that doesn’t mean we’re done complaining about the mess on the roads, which is still bad and getting worse. Seattleites have some of the longest commutes in the country, and close to 61,000 commuters here spend 90 minutes or longer traveling to work each day. And it’s stressing us out.

Unlike the chronic nature of some stressors, such as a hectic job, relationship tension or just trying to keep it all together day in and day out, commuting is more episodic, explains clinical psychologist Dennis Donovan, PhD, Generally, you’re exposed to the stressor twice a day, and then you’re able to move on with your life. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t taking a toll.

“I think that in the moment when you’re feeling that stress it can feel more intense than what you might feel from a chronic, ongoing stressor,” says Donovan. 

The stress of commuting isn’t just annoying, it may be hurting your health. Long commutes have been linked with poor sleep, high blood pressure, fewer social interactions and lower life satisfaction, among other health woes.

It may sound all doom and gloom, but that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless if you don’t live five blocks from your office. You may not be able to control where you live or solve Seattle’s traffic problems, but there are things you can do to lessen the burden of your commute. Here, Donovan shares five ways to cope.

Ask for schedule accommodations

Running from your problems doesn’t usually work, but in the case of traffic, sometimes the best way to deal with a stressor is to eliminate it from your life.

If your workplace is flexible, ask your boss if you can adjust your start and end times to avoid traveling in peak traffic. Better yet: Ask for a dedicated work-from-home day to boost productivity and avoid the commute altogether for one glorious day a week.

Leave your car at home

Driving a car demands your full attention. Keeping your eyes on the road, trying to keep yourself from laying on the horn when someone forgets their blinker or wondering if you’ll get stuck in the Mercer Mess for 10 minutes—or an hour—can make the stress of commuting that much worse.

Public transit isn’t without its own headaches: unpredictable traffic, standing-room-only or that dude who clips his nails sitting next to you, for starters. But it does give you time to read, text your mom or close your eyes and breathe without worrying about breaking the law or swerving into the next lane. 

If you’re looking for a healthier alternative, try biking to work. Learning safe biking techniques and finding the best route from your home to workplace can make biking a less stressful alternative that also strengthens your body and may make you more resilient to other life stress. Plus, research shows that active commuting may help lower your risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.

Enjoy a mindful moment

When you’re commuting, you’re basically a captive audience. You can either stew in discomfort or try to relax and make the most of it.

“Instead of swearing under your breath, take a deep breath and say: ‘This may be out of my control right now, but it’s OK,’” says Donovan.

Taking a few moments to breathe or to listen to calming music on your morning commute will set a positive tone for your day. Save activities that might bring you extra stress, like catching up on the news, for later in the day.

Take a walk and ease in

Before you get to work, take a short walk to decompress before diving into your work. This will help separate the time spent getting to work from your actual work, so you can leave your commute at the door.

“Once you get into work, take the opportunity to sit and relax for a moment, maybe sip a coffee or chat with a coworker, but don’t rant about what a terrible drive it was. That will only reinforce your perception of how bad it is,” says Donovan.

Try to cut out excess life stress

There’s a good reason why your coworker who just got handed a project that’s due tomorrow and is dealing with a high-stress home environment might seem extra cranky about her commute from time to time.

“If somebody is already stressed, uptight, anxious or angry and you add the stresses of the commute, where they’re confronting a variety of situations, it only compounds the levels of stress they experience,” says Donovan.

If you’re able to find some balance in your life more broadly by asking for help around the house, setting boundaries at the office or whatever would help you find some peace and calm, you might find yourself feeling that much more Zen when you’re stuck in traffic.