How to stay calm throughout the rush hour and beyond

Is your car commute driving you crazy? Traffic jams, roadworks, accidents, diversions, reckless motorists, dodgy sat navs, breakdowns … the list of potential stresses is endless. But fare hikes have made trains the most expensive mode of transport in the UK, so more of us are taking the car to work instead – 63% of commuters are now drivers. But we all know how stressful the morning commute can be, small wonder then that so many of us are already tense and exhausted before we even start work. Could mindfulness be the answer?

traffic jam during stressful commute

It’s all in your mind

Mindfulness has become something of a craze of late – there are thousands of apps, books and courses on the subject. But what exactly is it? Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, explains it as, “Knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves moment by moment.” The NHS describes it as being more aware of the world around us. Many mindfulness techniques centre around meditation. This would, of course, be highly dangerous while in charge of a vehicle but there are other skills you can use to lower your stress levels while driving.

Here we pull out some top tips on how mindfulness can help you in your car commute.

cut stress when driving

Andy Puddicombe, a meditation and mindfulness expert who launched the app Headspace, says that simply taking some time prior to your journey can reap huge benefits. “Before you even start the engine, just take a minute or two to sit. Become aware of the breath, take a few deeper breaths if you like, and simply use the time to come to a place of rest where you are, aware of how you are feeling. This in itself can transform a daily commute,” he says.

If your mind wanders while driving, try to bring it back to what you are doing in that moment – looking in your mirrors, listening to the sounds around you, and being aware of other drivers. “This is will steady your mind, lower your stress levels and ultimately make you more aware of the task at hand, which is your own driving,” explains Emma Horley, who runs Mindfulness retreats in locations like India, Bali and Thailand. “This is only going to make you a better driver.”

Train your mind

Writing in Harvard Business Review, mindfulness author Maria Gonzalez MBA argues that practising the techniques while driving isn’t only a good way to ease the stress of the journey – it can also help us change our way of thinking when it comes to other areas of our lives. When stuck in a traffic jam, for example, rather than running through that day’s to-do list or worrying about a personal problem, we could be learning how to be ‘mindfully present’.

“The idea is that you are continuously aware of three things: your body, what you see, and what you hear,” she says. “This is what it is to be mindfully present as you drive. Do your best to stay present for the entire commute.

“When your mind controls you, it is very stressful; but when you are able to control your mind, it can be very relaxing,” she adds. “A mindful commute will help you become more focused, relaxed, and effective even after you get to your destination.”

reduce stress on the way to work

Take a moment

If there is a jam or your commute takes you down quieter roads, you can use that time to become aware of how hard you’re gripping the steering wheel.

“Sometimes this can give us some useful feedback as to what’s going on in the mind,” says Andy from Headspace. “You don’t need to ‘do’ anything as such, but as soon as you notice, you may well find that the pressure changes in some way – either increasing or decreasing.”

“Taking a moment to be aware of your surroundings and truly present in the moment can be very calming, as it roots you in the ‘now’ and away from imaginary risks or future problems,” agrees Emma. “If you’re concentrating on a horrible meeting or your children’s homework instead of the road, it’s not going to make you a better driver.”

“Always remember that many of the people we find aggravating on the road may well be having a similar reaction to our driving,” Emma explains to us. “There’s little or nothing you can do about others’ driving, so why let it cause unnecessary stress? I find it useful to remember we’re all doing our best – the car is what it is, the road conditions can’t be helped and no amount of stress from you will alter that. When you get agitated, you only suffer twice. Stress and anger can lead to poor decision-making behind the wheel, so it’s much safer for you – and your family – to keep this under control.”

Sound of silence

The right soundtrack can lift your mood and help to keep you calm. But if you can’t bear to drive without your favourite tunes, be careful your soundtrack doesn’t distract you from the road, warns Emma. “Once you have completed a few mindful commutes and feel comfortable with them, you can turn on the radio, an audiobook or a podcast,” she says. “Just remember your primary focus should be on the road. I love listening to meditative music when I drive – and it doesn’t have to be pan pipes or percussive. One of my favourite songs is George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord and it’s amazing how calming I find it. Make your car a haven rather than a source of anxiety. If you feel distracted, try some deep breathing to bring your mind back onto the road.”

With kids in tow

Throw excitable/tired/grumpy children into the mix and stress levels can go through the roof. But the school run could be a chance to spend some meaningful time with your kids, right there in the car.

While stuck in traffic, try to get them chatting about their day. Once back home, they’ll likely have homework to do and/or rooms to stomp up the stairs to. So take advantage of the here and now and turn this into quality time with them.

Plus, as Sandi Schwartz, a freelance writer and researcher specialising in wellness and human behaviour, points out: “When we are relaxed and focused in the car, our children are safer.” So being mindful of your surroundings and the task in hand – getting them home safely – has never been more important.

Be nice

A big part of mindfulness is about being more aware of others and focusing on positive thoughts. Not always easy when you’re already half-an-hour late for work, have just crawled through several miles of roadworks and some boy racer cuts in front of you at the roundabout.

“It might sound corny, but wishing your other commuters love, or if that’s too much to muster, at least a pleasant and happy day will make us all more considerate drivers,” explains Emma. “If we were all taking more care of each other on the roads, it would inevitably mean fewer accidents and fewer frayed tempers.”

In reality, that’s not an easy thing to do – but it should leave you with a greater sense of wellbeing than swearing and gesturing through the window (we’ve all done it).

And another way to feel zen on your commute? Knowing that you’ve got a great deal on your car insurance.

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