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5 steps to a more mental health-friendly commute

Illustration of commuters on train
pch.vector / Freepik

Case study by Ufuoma Onemu

Tight spaces, noise, and an overall feeling of unpredictability can make commuting to work the psychological bane of many people's lives. Ufuoma Onemu gives her 5 steps to turning the mental turmoil of a journey to work into a more mental health-friendly experience.

Everything in our environment can affect our mental health, and an unhealthy, long or difficult commute can have negative consequences. Recently, I started a new position as an intern at a children’s clinic, which requires a commute of at least 3 hours to and from my house. Travelling by car or bus leaves me feeling sick, especially on really hot days. In a place like Lagos, Nigeria, which is filled with people, even cold days can be hot on public transport because of congestion.

Just thinking about the lengthy commute weighed me down before I started my internship and I felt stressed before the day started. I would feel anxious thinking about the journey home or to the clinic so much that focusing on work became a problem. In a bid to survive, I wanted to figure out how to deal with my lengthy commute. Research carried out by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning behavioural economist, revealed that most people consider commuting as the most miserable part of their day. So I wasn’t alone.

I also discovered how unsafe long commutes can be for physical as well as mental health. According to the Scientific American, every minute added onto a person's commute has a positive correlation with increased health problems. Commuting exerts intense stress on our physical, emotional and psychological health. From severe traffic, to accidents, to congested shared spaces, to the unpredictability of people, the factors contributing to stress are numerous. Not only does this lead to physical health problems like headaches, backaches, and high blood pressure, but a long commute can also lead to psychological disorders such as sleep issues, difficulty concentrating and fatigue.

So how can we make our commute better and create a positive effect on our wellbeing?

Step one: Create a transport plan

As I got used to my commute, I figured out the best and most comfortable ways to get from point A to B with less stress. Which bus would take me from one point to another? What would I do if that bus was unavailable? In fact, I quickly figured out which seat to take when I get on the bus (a window seat for maximum sunshine and breeze). When those seats are now unavailable, I know the next best option.

Ask yourself the same questions and you'll be amazed how much less stress you'll be feeling already!

Step two: Prepare for the day the night before

Trying to pack your bag, find the right clothes, or make lunch in the morning, right before you have to leave, can double the stress of a long commute.

In my case, preparing the night before did wonders for reducing my stress levels. Now, the night before, I set out the clothes I want to wear the next day, and put various alternatives in place; I put all my essentials in my bag; and when possible, I prep any meals I will be having. Preparing for the day that’s coming really made a difference, and now most days I’m ready to go quite early without rushing around.

Step three: Use those hours to get work done

Two or three hours is a lot of time to spend anxious and worried. I turned it around and started using that time to get stuff done. I would write articles or do research for other articles, or I would spend time editing pictures for my business, posting them, and interacting with customers.

Don’t feel pressured to do work related tasks during these hours though. You can watch a movie, read a book, listen to music or a podcast, or write in your journal. Just don’t waste those hours wallowing in stress. Research proves this approach the be helpful too. In a study carried out by Jon Jachimowicz and his colleagues, people who planned for the day ahead during their commute had higher levels of satisfaction at work and at home, compared with people who thought about personal problems or zoned out during their commute.


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Step four: Have your comfort tools ready

Public transport means dealing with lots of people in very close quarters, and a long journey can get boring very fast. So when you’re preparing your bag the day before, keep a few items that help you relax. I always have a bottle of water in my bag, mints or chewing gum, wipes, my sanitiser, a handkerchief, a scarf, and most importantly, my earphones to block out the world. When the weather gets really hot, water or a cold drink helps cool me down. My favourite trick is to make my handkerchief damp with some of my water and place it on the overheating parts of my body. It reaaaallly helps!

Bonus tips for dealing with a long commute in very hot weather:

  • Wear loose, comfortable, light coloured clothes to keep you as cool as possible

  • Stay hydrated: always have water, iced tea, or another hydrating drink on you

  • Apply sunscreen frequently

  • Opt for lighter foods like salads, fruits, or anything with a high water content

Step five: Use your commute as a boundary

It can be a struggle to mentally break away from work, even though you have left the building physically. Many times I’m thinking about all the reports I have to send or the emails that need a response, and end up more stressed on the way home than I was at work. At the same time though, many who have transitioned to home-working actually miss their commute; preparing to get off the train, bus, or car and start their day was an important part of getting into the mindset of work.

In both instances, seeing your commute as a ritual can help; a sign that the workday is beginning (or ending). Try to cut off work thoughts as soon as you get on the bus or in the car to go home. Distract yourself with a book, or music, plan your outfit for the next day, consider dinner, or any non-work related activity. Work thoughts may slip in but don't give them any attention. And try the opposite on the way to work, if you want to!

Bonus step: Make the most of the people around you

If all else fails, there is one thing you can do that can really help destress your commute: talk to others. After all, commuting is an experience you share with thousands of people, so what better way to destress than to talk about how you feel with someone who understands.

Take the first step to a healthier commute

Although the negatives of long commutes are numerous and glaring, there seem to be some positives. A long commute is definitely stressful, but if you follow the steps above you’ll be sure to turn the situation into a more mentally-beneficial experience.

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