How Does Traffic Affect Our Health?
Like many of you, I dislike driving in heavy traffic. But unlike many of you, I usually don’t have to. I live and work in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains, and my job is just steps from my home. Driving in the mountains can be challenging, but that’s mostly because of twists and turns in the roads, not traffic. For occasional business meetings and appointments, I venture down into Silicon Valley and even into San Francisco. As I crawl through town after congested town, or sit bumper-to-bumper on traffic-jammed highways, I’m always struck with how lucky I am that I don’t have to deal with this daily grind. I’m also filled with compassion for all of you who do.
Fortunately, there are tools that can help make your morning and evening commutes considerably easier – on your mental, emotional and physical health.
The Tolls of Traffic
On a recent weekday morning, a list of travel advisories for metropolitan areas around the country popped up on my kitchen television.
- Washington, D.C.: Expect delays. Allow 3 hours.
- Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana: Expect delays. Allow 2.5 hours.
- Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington: Expect delays. Allow 2 hours.
With light traffic, the typical commute in most urban areas would take about a half-hour. But, as you well know, light traffic happens mostly in the dead of night, not during the morning rush hour.
In 2011, we Americans whiled away 5.5 billion hours of our time, burned through 2.9 billion gallons of fuel, and shelled out $121 billion of our hard-earned money driving in stop-and-go traffic on our nation’s highways. These stunning figures appear in the 2012 Urban Mobility Report of the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University.
Today the high dollar cost of traffic congestion can be quantified, thanks to GPS-enabled vehicles that collect data nationwide. But what about the mental, emotional and physical tolls on all of us who collectively spend those 5.5 billion extra hours a year behind the wheel? Although quantitative data on the costs to our health and well-being is less plentiful than data on the costs to our pocketbook, what is available shows that we are paying a very high personal price as well. Traffic dwellers are more prone to stress, distraction, aggressive behavior, elevated blood pressure and larger waistlines, says one study released last year.
Even more alarming news came from the American Heart Association. A study has found a link between traffic and heart attacks. “People who have had a heart attack are likely to report having been in traffic shortly before their symptoms began,” stated a release from the Heart Association’s 49th Annual Conference on Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention. The association cited a German study that identified simple exposure to traffic as the key contributing factor in heart attacks. “Driving a car was the most common source of traffic exposure, but taking public transportation or riding a bicycle were other forms of exposure to traffic,” the association reported. “Overall, time spent in any mode of transportation in traffic was associated with a 3.2 times higher risk [of heart attack] than time spent away from this trigger.”
The Texas Transportation Institute found that an automobile commuter in Washington, D.C., spent an average of 67 hours in traffic each year. That’s about one and a half traditional work weeks! Commuters in the San Francisco-Oakland and the Los Angeles areas spent 61 hours each; those in the New York City area, 59 hours.
People who drive in large urban areas aren’t the only ones with traffic travails. “Congestion is worse [than the previous year’s findings] in areas of every size,” the institute’s report said. “Big towns and small cities alike cannot implement enough projects, programs and policies to meet the demands of growing population and jobs.”
How Stress Affects Us
Anyone who’s ever been stuck in morning traffic has experienced varying degrees of heightened stress. In the most congested areas, that amounts to an astounding level of communal stress.
The detrimental effects of stress have been well documented by researchers worldwide. They range from irritability, muscle tension and mild fatigue to depression, sleeplessness, palpitations, memory loss and other cognitive malfunctions, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, and the ultimate adverse effect, cardiac arrest.
- Sources estimate 75 percent to 90 percent of visits to primary-care physicians are stress-related.
- Billions are spent annually on antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs to treat stress symptoms.
- A Harvard study showed people living in a state of high anxiety, a primary symptom of stress, were four and a half times more likely to suffer sudden cardiac death.
You Can De-Stress
You can take some obvious steps to avoid traffic: Move some place where there is less of it, change jobs, live closer to your job. If you’re like most of us who live in congested areas, however, you’re stuck – in traffic.
Before venturing out each day, you may already do some yoga, eat healthfully, relax for a few minutes, or shoot for that perfect window of time when you can merge easily onto the freeway. Good ideas. Now here are two more.
Build Coherence and Add Ease
Every day you can consciously add more coherence. We are coherent when our mental, emotional and physical systems are in balance. We feel better, think more clearly and react more appropriately. When we are incoherent, challenging situations and activities – including sitting in traffic – can derail us.
Another important state is what HeartMath calls inner ease. With inner ease, you’ll find it’s a lot easier to flow through challenges: big meetings, tough days at work or school, and yes, traffic jams.
Quick Coherence® Technique
Before leaving in the morning, take a few minutes to get coherent by doing the Quick Coherence® Technique.
Step 1: Heart Focus – Focus your attention on the area around your heart, in the center of your chest.
Step 2: Heart Breathing – Breathe deeply but normally and feel as if your breath is coming in and going out through your heart area. Breathe with ease until you find a comfortable rhythm.
Step 3: Heart Feeling – While maintaining heart focus and heart breathing, activate a positive feeling. Recall a time when you felt good inside and try to re-experience that feeling.
Click for Quick Coherence Technique slide presentation and to download MP3 audio file.
The Inner-Ease™ Technique
Sometime after you’ve reached your destination, practice this simple tool.
Step 1. Acknowledge Your Feelings – Are you frustrated, impatient, anxious, overloaded, judgmental, mentally gridlocked? Admit what you are feeling.
Step 2. Heart-Focused Breathing – Breathe deeply through the heart area, with ease and a comfortable rhythm. (See Step 2 of the Quick Coherence® Technique.)
Step 3. Draw in Inner Ease and Balance – Continue Heart-Focused Breathing and imagine with each in-breath that you are drawing in the feeling of inner ease and emotional balance.
Step 4. Anchor and Maintain – When the stressful feelings have calmed, make a heartfelt commitment to anchor and maintain the state of ease as you re-engage in your activities.
Learn more in the free download of The State of Ease booklet.
If you practice these steps faithfully both before and after your commute, I truly believe you’ll find yourself driving – and arriving — with much less stress. You may still be using up your money, time and gas, but you’ll be shoring up your heart, mind and body.