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6 helpful techniques when dealing with a stressful commute

Many of us are getting back on the road for our daily commute to work. With more of us on the road comes:

  • increased traffic delays

  • construction / detours

  • increased accidents

  • merging in heavy traffic

  • managing pedestrians

  • being late

  • car troubles

  • dealing with weather (rain, snow, ice, etc.)

  • going to a new place or getting lost

  • parking

  • GPS not working or directing you to drive into a lake

  • car needs gas or engine light comes on

  • multitasking while driving (eating, doing makeup, managing kids in back seat, talking on the phone, etc.)

As we can see there are a variety of different stressors that we deal with on our daily commutes. Without managing these stressors effectively, we may be arriving at our destination (in this case work) at a state of high arousal, frustration, and anxiety.

Below I have some techniques you can try during your commute when dealing with some of these emotions. With these techniques we are hoping to increase your sense of calm, improve your commute, arrive at your destination grounded and feeling ready, and potentially even make your commute enjoyable.

Safety first

If you are reaching a point of distress that seems too high or is keeping us from being able to drive safety, pull over. It will always be a better option to pull over, manage your distress and get to your destination safely.

Please refer back to the blog created on 7/18/2021 titled "Crisis Survival Strategies" for tips to manage peak points of distress (anger / rage / fear / anxiety) while driving.

Technique #1: Leave early

Sometime we stress during our commute because we don't allow ourselves enough time to arrive to their destination safely or we plan our commute as if no challenges or delays will arise. This may work most days, but how about those days when you run into unexpected traffic delays. Typically this can be very stressful for you and likely makes the commute for that day not fun.

Leaving early allows for these delays to arise and helps us feel confident in arriving at our destination on time .

Technique #2: Use the radio

Whether it is a good song, a morning radio show, a podcast, or an audiobook. Getting out of your head might be one of the best things you can do while experiencing anger or

anxiety while on the road. Now of course, we want to stay focused on the road and be a safe driver. But, if you can focus on the road and listen to something, using the radio as a distraction can be a pivotal component of a positive and relaxed commute. If you find an audiobook or podcast you truly enjoy, you will likely start to look forward to your daily commute.

Technique #3: Deep breathing technique

Deep breathing techniques are great for a commute because most of us can do these easily while driving. We discussed some breathing techniques in the "Crisis Survival Skills" blog two weeks ago, refer back to that blog for two additional breathing techniques.

For driving, I love the breathing technique "Frustration to Peace." This breathing technique has you recognize the stressful stimuli or event in advance and cue yourself to take a deep breath when exposed to that stressful event. Some common stressors that might help us take a deep breath are as follows:

  • red lights

  • getting cut off

  • running into unexpected traffic delays

  • having thoughts arise regarding being late or thoughts regarding stressful things you cannot address while driving

Additionally, you can also use the list at the top of this article to identify some stressful situations you may run into when driving.

As we experience these things we take one deep breath in and release that breath. Lets do it right now. As you are sitting reading this article, think about catching 4 red lights in a row. Feel that irritation that flows through your body. Now, take a deep breath in, hold it for 5 seconds, and release that breath... How do you feel? Likely that irritation has reduced. Potentially your "frustration to peace" is simply taking a deep breath when you just think about driving.

As a recap, you are identifying the stressful trigger and as you experience that trigger, you are taking in one deep breath. If it is helpful to add additional breaths, great!

Technique #4: Challenging judgments (known as 'Nonjudgmental Stance' in DBT)

We use this technique to recognize the language we are using when thinking to ourselves while driving, and challenging the inappropriate judgements that arise. I define inappropriate judgments, as judgments that we experience, but have no evidence to support that judgment.

For instance, you might think to yourself "that person cut ME off!" Ask yourself, do you really know that person singled "me" out as a driver? That out of all of the people on the road, they saw your car, and chose to make it personal with you? You may not have much evidence to support that judgment / personalization. Some alternative explanations to that person cutting in front of me are:

  • Maybe that person is rushing to the hospital and currently in labor?

  • Maybe that person really has to go to the bathroom?

  • Maybe that person is late to their space launch to the moon!?

Sometimes using humor or thinking preposterously can assist us in recognizing the intensity of the judgments we hold and can cool us off a bit.

Challenging judgments or letting go of intense judgments can release a lot of the pent-up energy that comes with anger and anxiety while driving.

Technique #5: Cost / benefit analysis

Cost benefit analysis is a technique that we use to recognize our behavior and truly break down 'how do I benefit from this behavior?' and 'what are the costs?'.

For example, let's use tailgating someone out of anger.

Let's think of the benefits we gain from tailgating... hard to identify many. Maybe I gain a short term sense of pride in being aggressive with someone that I am frustrated with? Maybe it is validating to the intensity of my emotion in that moment? There are not many short term benefits, and certainly no long term benefits to tailgating.

Now lets think on the other side, what are some of the potential costs of tailgating? Well, referring back to our pros, that sense of pride and validation that we experienced in the short term, is likely to lead to shame and guilt later in our day or as we reflect back on that moment. Later when talking with someone else, you may think, "Wow! That really was not like me to drive so aggressively." Additional potential costs might be:

  • You put yourself and others in danger

  • You increase the intensity of the anger or anxiety

  • that driver returns that aggressive energy back at you (in turn, this increases danger even more)

  • You arrive to my destination at a heightened emotionality

  • You expend a lot of energy on a person that you will likely never interact with again

Looking at the above example, we really might question the behavior of aggressive driving because there are few things I gain. This can be the first step towards starting to change this behavior and living within your values.

Technique #6: Giving yourself grace

The last technique I have for today is giving yourself grace and being kind to yourself. We all make mistakes, find ourselves running late at times, accidentally cutting someone else off, or letting our emotions get the best of us while driving.

Instead of beating yourself up for these things, you can give yourself grace, treat yourself with kindness, and potentially identify techniques to keep you from this behavior in the future. Generally, putting our energy towards how you can change this behavior in the future, rather than beating yourself up for what is already done, will be more effective / positive in the long run.

Driving is stressful! There are so many things out of our control and so much opportunity for stressful challenges to arise during our commute. Hopefully some of these techniques will assist you in your future commute.

If you like what you read, please share this article with others and follow my blog for future articles related to mental health and helpful skills / resources!

Sam Anderson, MSW, LICSW

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