The Surprising Reason Your Commute Is Killing You — And It’s Not Germs
By Michelle October; photography by Eutah Mizushima on Unsplash
Is Metrorail messing with your mortality?
Frantic. Frazzled. Pissed off.
These are the words Jane Bartlett uses to describe how she feels walking into the office every morning. That’s because her commute from Cape Town’s southern suburbs to her office in the CBD ruins her day before it’s even begun. Her main gripe? The bridge right next to her house. It’s about 400 metres long, but every morning it takes Jane half an hour to get across. “There’s no way around that bridge,” she says. “I’ve tested it; every road leads to a dead end. The only option for me is to sit and wait.”
South Africa’s roads and trains are extremely jam-packed and a University of Johannesburg study found that transport is the third highest priority in our lives, topped only by education and health. And for good reason: your stressful daily trek is linked to all sorts of health risks, including high blood pressure, obesity, stroke and heart disease. What’s more, the longer the commute, the more time you’re shaving off your life. An Environment and Planning study found that women who have a longer commute have a higher mortality risk compared to men who have long commutes and women who travel shorter distances. And we’re not talking road accidents – just the toll that the stress of commuting takes on your well-being.
Highway To Hell
Whether you’re waiting for a train that just doesn’t arrive (thanks, #Metrofail!) or stuck behind a truck jackknifed at Gillooly’s that’s blocking two lanes, your anxiety levels skyrocket. Your body’s natural fight-or-flight response kicks in, but when you’re in impossible congestion, where there’s nowhere to flee and no way to fight your way out, anxiety can quickly develop into a full-blown illness.
It’s something we typically ignore, so you could be plagued by chronic migraines or IBS, but never link it to those hours you spend stuck in a packed, smelly train. After all, everyone’s in the same position as you, so why would it affect you any differently? Well, for starters, maybe because you’re a woman. A University of California study showed that commute stress expresses itself more severely in women and it often influences other parts of our lives, such as work. According to the study, that’s because when you’re stuck in a jam, you’re not just seeing it for what it is, but rather as something that’s stopping you from moving forward in life and achieving other things, like a promotion. And it’s debilitating. “Anxiety takes us out of the present tense,” says clinical psychologist Liane Lurie. “It’s a ‘What if?’ way of thinking. Without realising it, we doubt our own capacity to cope with something in a given situation.” Over time, anxiety leads to high blood pressure, burnout and adrenal fatigue, says Lurie. And when you catch a cold from Patient Zero coughing and sneezing next to you on the train, you’re less likely to recover quickly because stress messes with your body’s immune system. A BMC Public Health study linked lengthy commutes with higher illness-related work absences – in addition to decreased energy and increased stress – while a report by The People Element showed that the South African economy loses a whopping R3-billion every year because of stress-related expenses, such as absenteeism, lower productivity and medical insurance.
Running on Empty
Since starting her own marketing agency, Cleo Johnson spends around five hours on Johannesburg’s roads every day, dropping family members off and crawling to meetings in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Her commute isn’t just getting her to her next appointment; she’s also doing business from her car. “Because I have my own agency, I have to take calls while I’m driving because clients don’t care that you’re on the road, they want results,” she says. When she gets home, all Cleo wants to do is fall into bed, but she has to cook and catch up on mails she couldn’t answer while driving. Playing dodgem cars every day is taking its toll on her. On one occasion, she almost cried from exhaustion. “I remember I was trying to look for a top to wear and I literally wanted to burst into tears because of how agitated and exhausted I was,” she says. “I was just past the point of being okay and being able to manage how tired I was. The fact that I wanted to cry over a T-shirt is ridiculous.” And yet, that’s exactly what five hours on the road will do to you.
A 2012 Regus Work: Life Balance Index found that commuting for over 45 minutes each way lowers the quality of your sleep, so even when you do catch some Zzzs, you’re not getting the relief your body craves. In the long term, Cleo could face serious health issues. “You can start to feel depressed,” says Lurie. “You’ll have difficulty making decisions and your motivation is gone because all your energy is focussed on getting from point A to point B, as opposed to having passion for the work you’re doing.” Physically, she could start to experience frequent headaches and she’s on high alert for burnout.
Also on the list are gut issues and – this one’s a doozy – a higher risk for heart attacks. There are more immediate issues too. That lingering backache that has you popping Nurofen like Smarties? You guessed it – commuting could be the source. “As you start driving, you push your head forwards, which puts pressure on your cervical spine,” explains physiotherapist Nicole Faulmann. “Over time, this pressure impacts the discs in your spine, leading to spinal degeneration. This degeneration is a normal part of ageing, but it’s accelerated with bad posture and, yes, too much time in your car. “Some patients of mine might come in at 30-years-old, but their back has already degenerated to what it would look like if they were 50 years old,” says Faulmann. And then there’s the fear factor, which may be affecting you more than you realise. If you’re shaken up about the way taxis are narrowing in on your lane on a daily basis or can’t face the train station, you’re traumatised, even if nothing has actually happened to you. “I think people drive with a level of tension to almost prevent a trauma from happening,” says Lurie. “You carry a secondary trauma because you hear of things happening to other people.”
Enjoy The Ride
How you save yourself from your commute depends on how seriously it’s affecting you. If you’re not spending hours in transit, but you’re still taking strain, focus on changing your mindset. “Ask yourself, ‘How urgent is it that I get home in this particular time frame?’” says Lurie. If you can, avoid traffic by staying an extra half hour at the office. You’ll head home on an emptier road and you can use the time to prep for a smooth start the next day. If you must head home in the thick of it, use the time to call your mom back at last and plan that family dinner she’s been wanting to arrange (hands-free if you’re driving, obvs). Or simply use the time to process your day.
“If you can, build in pauses so that you don’t feel like you’re going from one very stressful situation to another,” says Lurie. Hit the gym before you hit the road or stop at a coffee shop on your way to the station. In the morning, the key is to meditate before leaving. This doesn’t have to mean cutting into valuable sleeping time – rather, see it as a few seconds to quieten your mind and just breathe deeply. “What’s so surprising is that so many people don’t know how to breathe,” says Lurie – meaning you could be hyperventilating without realising it. Next, fix your posture. “Your car seat should be angled at a 95- to 100-degree angle to support your lower back,” says Faulmann. You should also be scooching your butt until it’s right at the back of the seat. That’s because, ideally, your feet and knees should be at 90-degree angles, but because you need to operate the clutch, the next best thing is to align your spine from the bottom up. And look after your neck: your head should rest on the headrest.
If your work-commute schedule is so tight you feel like you’re being suffocated, another option is to find out if you can negotiate your working hours. This year, the City Of Cape Town (recently awarded the dubious title of SA’s most congested metropol) appealed to businesses to let workers apply for flexitime. Research shows it can alleviate stress by making you feel like you’re back in control of your time. On that note, it’s also a good idea to get on top of a speedy lunchtime workout. Go for a run or hit the closest gym. Studies point to exercise as one of the best ways to mitigate stress.
If like Cleo, you’re heading into dangerous territory, it’s time to take stock, says Lurie. “Play your movie forward: in six month’s time,
are you still feeling this way? Is it even worse?” If your answer is yes, something needs to change. “You need to evaluate which measures need to be put in place,” she says. Do you need to be booked off work? Do you even need to do the work you’re doing? Could you move closer to work? At the end of the day, says Lurie, the main question you’ll need to ask yourself is if what you’re doing is worth the risk to your health in the long term.