The prospect of going back to work – even if it’s only a few days a week – is getting closer for those of us who have been working from home for a year.
Many are already on their way back to work, but after a considerable amount of time on trains, buses and trams – let alone during rush hour – just the idea of daily commuting can be overwhelming.
And it’s not surprising to feel reluctant or concerned about going back to normal.
“Research shows that commuting can trigger a stress response that increases anxiety and blood pressure, and even leads to consolation-seeking behaviors such as emotional eating,” says Dr. Meg Arroll, psychologist on behalf of Healthspan.
She explains that many factors associated with commuting, such as being uncomfortable with others, being delayed on the journey, and worries about the anti-social behavior of other passengers, can create a sense of threat that increases levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol in the body.
“Studies have shown that fear is generally higher in public transport compared to using private vehicles. This is most likely due to impaired ability to control or escape the situation on a busy train or bus. Arroll explains.
It’s never nice to have a commuter freak-out, visible or not, but luckily, there are strategies out there you can use to get a grip on the problem.
“My main tip is to always have a bottle of water with you,” reveals Arroll.
“Often times, the uncomfortably hot and stuffy temperatures of subways and buses make you feel trapped a lot worse, and they play into a loop of fear.”
She is also a fan of distraction techniques like listening to music, escapist podcasts or books. However, when you are feeling really nervous, you may find it hard to focus on an action.
If so, Arroll suggests using your commute to practice mindfulness and listen to meditations that you can follow while sitting on a bus or train.
“When you feel that the fear of commuting is getting overwhelming, diaphragmatic breathing techniques can stop the stress response (increased heart rate, tremors, headaches) by activating your parasympathetic nervous system,” says Arroll.
The parasympathetic nervous system is a part of the body that, when activated, can create a calm, relaxed feeling – basically the opposite of the “fight or flight” we feel when we are stressed.
Diaphragmatic breathing, or deep breathing, is breathing in which the diaphragm is contracted and inhaled into the abdomen rather than the chest.
“Practicing breathing techniques regularly, even when you’re not commuting, is a great thing, so if at any point you feel panic, you have the tools to override your body’s innate physiological response.”
However, if your commuting makes you so anxious each day that you feel completely overwhelmed or have panic attacks, it may be time to see a doctor to see if they can help you.
You can also talk to your employer about whether you will continue to work from home or at least travel to the office outside of peak hours.