Rush-hour traffic can be agonizing. Usually kind people can find themselves yelling in anger and feeling their blood pressure rise as another driver cuts them off. And most of us know too well the painful eternity that each minute of stop-and-go driving can bring as we become increasingly late for work. Indeed, the desperate need to get somewhere combined with a complete lack of control over getting there can quickly turn the simplest commute into a trapped-and-can't-escape nightmare.
To the well-known downsides of excessive stress, you can add traffic-related stress as another negative impact on physical health. Perhaps more surprising is the extent to which the brain - that precious organ so critical for how we think, feel and behave - is on the receiving end of this.
Certain brain structures, such as the almond-shaped amygdalae, are particularly vulnerable. Nestled deep within each hemisphere of the brain, these clusters of cells help us respond to potential dangers. Overactivation by chronic stress and stress-related hormones can alter the physical shape and mode of functioning of these structures, which is often accompanied by increased anxiety.
The nearby hippocampus is also targeted. One of its jobs is to help commit our conscious life experiences to memory. Regular stress causes hippocampal cell loss.
Memory problems also arise through stress effects in the prefrontal cortex. Among other things, this forward-most section of the brain helps us hold and manipulate information in working memory, which is critical for planning and decision-making.
Being stuck in traffic is made all the worse by the perceived lack of control over the situation, a factor that significantly increases the physiological and neurological effects of stress. New research continues to add to the growing list of problems associated with traffic-related stress, including anxiety, depression, irritability and aggressive behaviour in the workplace. It's almost enough to make one hang up the car keys for good.
Thankfully, neuroimaging studies and psychological research offer some hope for those unable to escape the daily drive to work. These investigations suggest that people have far greater control over the way they perceive and think about a situation, and the corresponding patterns of activation within the brain, than they typically realize.
This includes situations in which you may otherwise feel a frustrating lack of control - such as in stop-and-go traffic. Indeed, brain scans have shown how a simple instruction to think of an anxiety-provoking situation in a different way can lead to a significant reduction in activity in areas such as the amygdalae.
One way to change the way you view your commute is to stop ruminating about wasted time and instead see your car time as an opportunity to ponder and reflect. Research suggests that allowing your mind to wander recruits specific neural networks and highly associative cognitive processes that may be critical for creative problem solving. Engaging your brain in other driving-compatible tasks, such as listening to the radio, can also help. Drivers listening to music when traffic is at its worst have been shown to experience less stress than those not listening to music.
The ideal solution, of course, is to move within walking or biking distance of your workplace. Ditching your car and walking or cycling provides physical exercise, which releases brain-growth factors and triggers new neurons to form in the hippocampus. While enhancing memory, regular exercise can also reduce anxiety and depression. Biking or walking to work also helps others.
After all, fewer drivers mean less traffic, and less traffic means less stress for those on the road.
Mark Fenske, co-author of The Winner's Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success, is an associate professor at the University of Guelph.