When you’re late for work and stuck in heavy traffic, you may be experiencing skydiving levels of stress. That’s according to a 2014 MIT study that found jumping out of an airplane and driving in heavy congestion are comparable when it comes to your blood pressure, sweat volume, and other measures of anxiety.
More research has linked a lengthy daily commute—usually defined as driving more than 10 miles one way—to heavier body weights, higher blood cholesterol, poorer sleep, and more frequent sick days. The unpredictability and loss of control when you’re behind the wheel may explain why the activity is so aggravating, researchers say.
But there are remedies. Here are six that could prevent your long commute from shortening your life.
CLOSE YOUR WINDOWS
Air pollutants pumped out of other vehicles can damage your lungs and heart, shows research from the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey. Keeping your windows closed can help block some of those pollutants from getting into your car, says Mark Mendell, Ph.D., a member of the International Academy of Indoor Air Sciences. While your car’s air filter doesn’t completely scrub the air you’re breathing when the heat or AC is running, you’re still better off with your windows closed when you’re stuck in traffic, Mendell says.
CHANGE THE SCENERY
While driving on busy freeways or urban streets ups your stress, driving on scenic or tree-lined roads doesn’t, finds research from Ohio State University. If you can adjust your route so that you’re passing parks or “green” spaces—even if it adds a few minutes to your commute—you should find the drive less stressful, the researchers say.
SWITCH UP YOUR SOUNDTRACK
While up-tempo or “aggressive” tunes can heighten your anxiety in traffic, mellow jams have just the opposite effect, shows a study from UK and Dutch researchers. More research shows listening to nothing or tuning into news or talk radio can also up your anxiety while stuck in traffic. So fire up that soft rock Spotify channel, or put together a somber beats playlist for those times when your commute gets rough.
LAUGH IT OFF
If mellow music doesn’t do the trick, listening to stand-up comedy may break up your anxiety. Dozens of studies have linked laughter—and even smiling—to lower levels of stress hormones like cortisol. The latest Louis CK or Aziz Ansari routine may be your antidote to a stressful commute.
It’s hard not to get worked up when you’re late and stuck in traffic. But worrying about something over which you have no control is one aspect of problem or “pathological” anxiety disorders, according to research from the University of Florida.
Think of it this way: When you’re mired in traffic, nothing you can do in that moment is going to alleviate the jam or transport you to your destination more quickly. Rather than going nuts thinking about how late you’re going to be, practicing aspects of ‘mindfulness’ meditation can help lower your stress, research shows. Focus on your breathing, and try to clear your mind of anxious emotions. Mindfulness apps like StopBreatheThink can get you started.
TAKE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION
A lot of the downsides of driving—having to sit still for long periods, obsessing about traffic—disappear when you take public transportation, suggests research from University College London. Taking a train or bus to work allows you to stand and distract yourself with a good book or magazine (or eyeing the babe on the other side of the train car). Biking or walking to work is an even healthier option.