03/13/2014 05:47 EDT | Updated 05/13/2014 05:59 EDT

Your Daily Commute May Be Killing You

Whether you like it or not, every day you wake up at the crack of dawn to get ready for yet another day at work. Half-asleep, you quickly brush your teeth, stick those pesky clothes and maybe even take a sip of coffee - all in the hopes of reaching your workplace on time. This is a morning routine few of us are fond of, but there's something even worse -- the commute.

Whether you're taking the TTC in Toronto, Translink in Vancouver or driving your beater on the Trans-Canada Highway, you're stuck for at least an hour in transit.

If you feel annoyed or stressed by this, you're not alone. Recent studies show that long commutes do in fact have a negative effect on your mind and body, causing stress, anxiety and more. There are ways of fixing with this problem, but before you do, you need to know what you're dealing with.

The Brain's Response System During the Commute


Your brain doesn't suddenly become dormant when you start commuting. In fact, it's more active than ever.

Let's say you're taking the highway to work and you're bumper-to-bumper jammed in traffic. Looking at your watch, you can just tell you'll be late to work. Soon, your frustration and anxiety levels increase to the point that you can feel them. Your body basically enters a "flight-or-fight" mode, which results in the feeling of being "stuck" and wishing to find some form of escape -- despite the lack of any real danger.

At this point, your brain shoots nerve signals down your spinal cord to your adrenal glands (near the kidneys) telling them to release the first stress hormone: adrenaline. At the same time, you're also receiving signals from your brain, which tell it to produce another stress hormone called cortisol.

Now as you're sitting in your car on the DVP, your blood sugar levels slowly rises, blood pressure and heart rate dramatically increase. Even though you didn't grab your Tim Horton's on the way to work you feel fully awake and alert -- this is stress at work.

Death by Commute

While certain amounts of stress-inducing hormones are helpful to our learning and formation of memory, they are all harmful when released in excess. The negative form of stress occurs when we are frequently anxious and under pressure. That's when our adrenal glands secrete stress hormones at a faster rate, which results in something called chronic stress.

Commuters are at a higher risk of chronic stress than anyone else. Studies have proven that exposing yourself to years of repetitive stress will not only negatively affect your body, but also your brain.

The most shocking effect chronic stress can have on your brain is the reduction of brain cells in your memory. In fact, the overdose of cortisol can permanently damage your hippocampus, which is the part of your brain associated with memory. Basically, the nerve cells become overloaded too frequently, so they literally become excited when faced with too much stress.

But, the unpleasant pressure from chronic stress goes beyond losing a few brain cells -- it can even shorten your life span. As well as decrease immunity and increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke.

How to Minimize Stress for Your Next Commute

The fact is that "stress by commute" is likely to stay with you for the rest of your life. It's very difficult to make the choice to move closer to work just to avoid these long-term effects of chronic stress. However, you can reduce the amount of stress you face on a day-to-day basis by trying some of these tricks.

Listen to classical music

You can listen to classical music by composers such as Mozart to decrease anxiety. The music can bring harmony to an otherwise chaotic and stressful situation.

Take Different Routes

Don't use the same route to work, even if one of them is incredibly convenient. Try to switch things up every now and then since the same old road can get old quickly -- and that can lead to stress.

Use Public Transit

From time to time, switch to public transit to increase your body movement. It may feel inconvenient at first, but if you treat the activity like an adventure, it will grow on you.

Leave Home Earlier

This may not always be possible, but try making your way to work earlier to avoid traffic jams. You would probably have to go to bed earlier at night to wake up on time, but it would be worth it in the end.

If you have any other tips to reduce stress on the way to work, be sure to share them in the comments below.