Why Your Frustrating Commute Is Emotionally Exhausting

Photographed by Ali Gavillet.
On most days, I shuffle into a stuffed (sometimes air-conditioned, sometimes not) train carriage, where I stand with other commuters like sardines packed into a tin. Then, probably with someone's backpack in my face, I am hurled through an underground tunnel to get to work (or, on the weekend, wherever it is I'm going). As if that's not bad enough, on any one of those days, I can be stalled underground several times during my trip, or desperately avoiding a concussion as the old train jostles all of us sardines back and forth without mercy.
Yet, I count myself lucky, because unlike some commuters, I've yet to be on a train that derailed underground and then had a door rip off from heavy impact. Or been on a train that lost power underground for at least 45 minutes.
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But even if you haven't been in situations that dire, commuting still can suck. For some people, hours-long commutes are just a part of their everyday lives. And while delays and traffic may be the norm for a lot of us, a bummer of a commute is sure to affect your mental health over time. Kati Morton, LMFT, says that when you start your day with a frustrating commute, it sets the tone for the rest of the day.
"We each wake up with a certain amount of poker chips, and those poker chips are how much we have to give that day, and that can differ," she says. "If we wake up and realise we’re late, it’s like we drop two poker chips just getting out of bed. The commute adds to that because before we’ve even entered our technical work day where we have to interact with people, we have already lost some of those poker chips along the way."

If our system is heightened or maxed out for an hour and a half a day, our anxiety level rises, our blood pressure goes up and our heartbeat increases.

Kati Morton, LMFT
Not to mention, whether you're in your car in traffic or your bus is delayed, there's usually an element of your commute that you can't control. And Morton says that if there's nothing you can do about, say, that accident that's causing bumper-to-bumper traffic, or the train being held at a station, you feel helpless — and that can cause a lot of anxiety.
"If our system is heightened or maxed out for an hour and a half a day, our anxiety level rises, our blood pressure goes up and our heartbeat increases," she says, adding that all of this signals the amygdala, what she calls the "fire alarm" part of our brains, to send us into panic to deal with the stress.
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"The signals our amygdala sends out, if we run that pathway all the time and we don’t have any real downtime to recharge and reboot and essentially pick up more poker chips, like do self-care, it’s almost like driving over a road over and over and never repaving it," Morton says.
Figuratively speaking, if we're driving over the same road and not repaving it, we're not giving ourselves enough time to rest and recover, which puts us at risk of burning out.
Still, that doesn't mean that something you do nearly everyday has to be all doom-and-gloom. Morton says that if you can focus on the things about your commute that you can control, it might be a little less miserable. Hint: That's when those true-crime podcasts, get-happy playlists, and new books might come in handy.
Morton also says that it's not just about what you do during the commute, but also about how to decompress during the day, whether you rant to a coworker about said commute, or take time on your lunch break to go outside and take a walk that doesn't involve briskly walking to your office so as not to be late. And maybe you even start your commute a little earlier than you usually do to budget time for any delays (something I've personally started doing, because being late makes me anxious as hell).
If your commute is truly making you anxious every day to the point of, say, having panic attacks, or not being able to function, it might be time to check in with a doctor to see if they can help you. But otherwise, if all else fails, you can borrow a commuting mantra that Morton tells herself when Los Angeles traffic gets her down: "You’re doing the best you can, you’re going to get there when you get there and the most important thing is you get there safe."
If you are experiencing anxiety and are in need of crisis support, please call the Anxiety UK on 0844 775 774.
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