Zap the Stress From Your Commute

One of my biggest sources of work stress used to come before I even got to work — during my commute. I’ve been known to be a pretty intense driver. It’s not that I drive that fast. I just want to get wherever I’m going quickly, even when I’m early. And I want everyone to either get out of my way or move at the perfect speed. Oh, and I want every light in my path to be green. Seems reasonable… 😃

Of course that doesn’t happen. And I would arrive at work stressed and annoyed. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I had no interest in helping clients or being of service to anyone else. How could I after such a drive?

It wasn't exactly the best way to start the day. And imagine welcoming me home at the end of it, if I was already stressed from work and had to deal with traffic again later. I'm sure I wasn't very pleasant.

Something had to change. And it wasn’t going to be the drive or the traffic. So it had to be me.

Before I knew much about meditation, I used breathing techniques as a tool to fall asleep. (I didn’t know I was meditating.) I still didn’t know much about what I was doing when I applied these same exercises during my morning drive. All I knew was that when I did them, I felt better.

My hands and jaw weren’t sore from clenching out of frustration. My heart wasn’t beating out of my chest. I didn’t feel like arguing with people when I got to work.

Becoming a Mindful Driver

Three things that work for me when I feel The Hulk start to come out on my drives.

1. Breathe

The simplest thing any of us can do, anytime, is breathe. Slow, deep breaths help our nervous system to relax. We get out of fight or flight mode and can trigger our rest and digest mechanism. (That sounds way more pleasant to you, right?) A wave of hormones hits us and our heart rate decreases, muscles relax and we’re happier.

Try this: Count to 10 deep breaths while you’re driving, especially when something agitates you — someone cuts you off, the guy in front of you keeps hitting his brakes, the light won’t change, etc.

2. Pay Attention

Remember, you’re driving. You’re navigating a large, metal box at (sometimes) high speeds in near proximity to other people in metal boxes. Paying attention to the act is probably a good idea.

And it turns out, it is. High-anger drivers are twice as likely as other drivers to be in collisions. Likely because they engage in more aggressive behaviors and drive at higher speeds

Try this: Pay attention to the fact that you’re driving. Notice that minor changes in the pressure on your foot have dramatic effects on your acceleration and speed. Notice the road in front of you. Notice that you’re holding the steering wheel. Is your grip tight or loose? How does that affect your body?

3. We’re All Trying Our Best

I’m the center of my universe, just as you’re the center of yours, and the woman hogging the road in her SUV is at the center of hers. As David Foster Wallace so vividly pointed out during his famous commencement speech, there might be space to consider why she drives that way — maybe she was in a terrible accident, or maybe she’s in a hurry because her son is sick and she’s rushing to the doctor.

Very likely, it’s nothing that dramatic, but the lesson can remain: Each of us is doing the very best we can at every moment of the day. And instead of frustration, there might also be room for grace and forgiveness.

Try this: The next time someone cuts you off, wish them luck and happiness on their journey. Smile, even. Remember they’re trying their absolute best, just as you are.

Bonus: Try to drive for fuel efficiency

If you want to try going a little more green and save yourself some money, be mindful of your acceleration and braking patterns. Small steps like accelerating a little more slowly or coasting instead of braking hard can have a big impact on your car’s gas usage. And you get some residual benefits: You’re paying more attention to your own driving than the jerk who cuts you off so you’re more in control of your emotions. Driving at a more controlled speed, you’re better prepared to avoid an accident with another car. And you can give yourself a nice mental reward in knowing that you’re acting with kindness both toward the Earth and toward other drivers.