I live in San Diego and am in a doctorate program in Los Angeles. 124 miles door to door. One hour and 59 minutes one way with no traffic, up to four hours in the unpredictable concrete and freeway maze that is life in Southern California.
And yes, it is exactly as draining as it sounds.
Commuting can be soul-sucking. There is something incredibly debilitating and defeating about realizing that what waits for you at the end of a ten-hour day of class is a two-hour appointment with the 5 freeway. It is unforgiving and impersonal in nature. The 5 does not care whether you’ve had a hard day, or that your hips hurt from an IT band strain and too much time in the car. It gives no leeway when your eyes burn with exhaustion or the times you would give anything to be home just twenty minutes earlier.
Commuting encourages rootlessness, this feeling of feeling neither here nor there. It is difficult to make friends and feel at home in Los Angeles, because that’s not where I live. My coffee shop is in San Diego. My dogs and husband are in San Diego. My doctor and favorite place to unwind is in San Diego. But if I’m not a part of the community where I work and go to school, then where does that leave me? Alone in my car is where, gulping down a Starbucks cold brew, trying desperately to stay in a good mood so I don’t take out my freeway frustrations on my classmates or husband.
And I am far from the only one. According to a recent Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, I am part of a small subsect of “mega-commuters,” a tired and cranky 8.1% of Americans that spend 90 minutes or more commuting one way every single day.
There are countless articles detailing the detriments of commuting on your physical health, mental health, and even relationships. It is statistically shown to take time away from your spouse, friends, and family. Commuters spend less time preparing food, working out, and other behaviors associated with more positive health outcomes. Mentally and emotionally, it is shown to increase stress levels, decrease feelings of control, and increase social isolation.
But there come times in people’s lives where for one reason or another, a long commute is unavoidable. So where does that leave us 8.1%?
Making the Most of a Mega-Commute
When classmates look at me aghast upon learning just how much time I spend in the car on a weekly basis, I tell people I try not to think too hard about it and just get it done. But that’s really only a half-truth. Every day feels different, and some days are much harder than others to get behind the wheel. But I’ve employed a number of strategies to try and ease the mental, physical, and emotional toll.
- Give yourself something to look forward to. Everyone recommends podcasts. For me, that doesn’t do it. They make me sleepy and after a ten-hour day of class, the last thing I want to do is absorb more auditory information. Setting up dinners with friends halfway through my drive or even getting take-out sushi on days where I just need to treat myself somehow goes such a long way with having something besides a two-hour drive to look forward to.
- Check in with yourself regularly. Acknowledge the stress. Cope with the stress. Commuting tends to be one of those things people feel like they “have to do,” that they just tough out and slog through. But this method of not facing the reality of the stress can have detrimental impacts on mental health later.
- Have an end goal. Research overwhelmingly shows that commuting is not good for physical, mental, or emotional well-being. In any decision where you are sacrificing your physical or mental health for some kind of gain, it is helpful to think with attention to long-term solutions. How long are you willing to endure the commute? What are steps you can take to make it more manageable? What is your end goal and how are you taking steps towards it?
- Monitor your physical health. Setting up structured physical activities at certain points of the week has been incredibly important for me to off-set my time spent in the car. It breaks up the drive, it ensures I get a workout in, and it reduces the longevity of time spent in the car.
- Figure out the worst part. What is your least favorite part of commuting? Is it missed time with loved ones? Too much time sitting? A strained back? Missed time working? How can you alleviate that worst part? For me, making time for long phone conversations with my husband as well as working on homework with a voice recording app went long way toward decreasing what I was missing during my mega-commute.
Christian TJ. Automobile commuting duration and the quantity of time spent with spouse, children, and friends. Preventive Medicine. 2012; 55:215–218.
Christian, T. J. (2012). Trade-offs between commuting time and health-related activities. Journal of urban health, 89(5), 746-757.
Novaco, R. W., & Gonzalez, O. I. (2009). Commuting and well-being. Technology and well-being, 3, 174-4.
Rapino, M. Alison, F. (2013). Social, Economic, and Housing Statistics Division | United States Census Bureau. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/library/working-papers/2013/demo/SEHSD-WP2013-03.html
Wei, Marlynn. (2015). Commuting: The Stress that Doesn’t Pay. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/urban-survival/201501/commuting-the-stress-doesnt-pay