to work can be extremely stressful—and unhealthy. A stress-management expert
tells six ways to calm down and protect your sanity.
Wednesday, March 23, 2005 By Anne Fisher
We’re all familiar with the trend: The never-ending search for affordable housing has forced more workers to live farther away from their jobs than ever before. Mass transit systems are often unreliable or non-existent, so most people drive to work. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (www.nhtsa.gov) reports that the number of miles Americans travel by car each day has jumped by 27% since 1991. Not coincidentally, a recent NHTSA survey says 75% of drivers accuse their fellow commuters of aggressive and unsafe driving—tailgating, cutting off other drivers, and changing lanes without signaling. Being stuck in a car for a couple of hours each day is “intensely stressful,” says Kathleen Hall, (www.drkathleenhall.com), a stress management expert who has a doctorate from Columbia Theological Seminary.
“We have studies showing that commuters have astronomical levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their systems,” says Hall, who commutes an hour and a half each way from her farm in the mountains of Georgia to her Atlanta office, where she treats patients suffering from hypertension. “Over time, stress causes people to age more rapidly, and it leads to illnesses like hypertension, strokes, heart disease, and even cancer.”
So what? Short of quitting your job or moving closer to the office what can you do about it? Plenty. In her book, Alter Your Life: Overbooked? Overworked? Overwhelmed? (Oak Haven Press, $14.95), Hall, who is a licensed therapist, offers some strategies for stress control. Based on her own experience as a road warrior, she advises “turning your commute from a ‘waste of time’ into a time that is actually productive for you.” Instead of seeing your car as a steel cage where you are trapped for certain periods each day, try seeing it as your private space. Here are some of her suggestions:
A classroom. “I wanted to learn Spanish,” says Hall. “So I got a Spanish-conversation course on CD and learned Spanish in my car.” And how about books on tape? “If you’re too busy to read, here’s your chance,” she says. “Audio books are great, and they’ve actually been helpful to me in business meetings, where people were talking about the latest big book and I had just been listening to it in the car.” Hall says she even took a horticulture course while driving, and “it saved me a lot of money on landscapers.”
A choir loft. Singing is immensely therapeutic, even if you can’t carry a tune. (But in your car, who hears you anyway?) Belting out a song “increases the oxygen in your bloodstream,” Hall says. “It also raises immunoglobulin A levels, which is great for your immune system. And studies have shown singing boosts your body’s production of hydrocortisone, an anti-stress hormone.”
A concert hall. “Listening to music increases serotonin, a hormone your body uses in healing. Soft, calming music reduces stress, while livelier music is energizing,” Hall says. Angry talk radio and loud, annoying commercials, on the other hand, are unlikely to do your stress levels much good, so stick with CDs or tapes of your favorite tunes.
A counseling center. Hall observes that men, in particular, are often reluctant to talk with counselors or therapists about their problems. But in the privacy of their cars, they can get counseling on CDs or cassettes to deal with “anger management, depression, phobias, parenting issues,” she says. “I’ve seen this work very well for some people.”
A private chapel or temple. “Thirty years of research have shown that prayer and meditation lower blood pressure and strengthen the immune system,” says Hall. “These activities have also been shown to improve memory and slow the aging process.” Worth a try.
A comedy club. Ultrasound studies of the effects of mood on the cardiovascular system show that when a person is stressed out or depressed, his arteries constrict. By contrast, just five minutes of laughter improves blood-vessel function. “Laughter has the same benefits as aerobic exercise,” Hall says. “So pop in a CD of Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Chris Rock, Jeff Foxworthy—whoever makes you laugh. Just think how much better you’ll feel when you get to work.”
Two more tips: Try using your commute as an exercise in tolerance. “Some of my clients are aggressive type-A executives whose blood pressure goes up 20 points when they’re stuck in traffic,” says Hall. “I’ve had them take just five days and practice deliberately letting people cut in front of them, letting other drivers pass them, and so on… as a conscious exercise in patience. Sometimes this affects people’s whole outlook on life. One client said to me that while he was doing this, he realized he was always angry and rushed, not just in the car, but on the golf course and in the office too. Practicing patience was a real breakthrough for him.” A final thought: “If you’re going to wave at other drivers, just make sure to use all three middle fingers together,” says Hall. “Pretend they’re superglued.”