The average American driver spends more than 300 hours behind the wheel every year, and that number is slowly creeping higher. More time behind the wheel can mean more stress, as well as more opportunities for distraction.
Many drivers see their commute as just another hurdle standing between them and the next thing to check off of their to-do list. By completing their commute on auto-pilot, drivers are often caught up daydreaming about their workday or, worse, talking on the phone or texting instead of paying attention to the road.
Mindful drivers are able to snap out of the daze in which they typically complete their commute and find new ways to lower their stress levels while in transit. A focused commute will make your time in the car more pleasant and less anxiety-inducing, not to mention safer for you, as well as for other drivers on the road.
Good habits can make driving less stressful
The first step toward reducing stress while you drive should be a step back for a little reflection. Take a look at your driving habits to see if you can spot things you can change to improve the experience. You probably won’t eliminate all of the frustrations that come with driving through sheer force of will, but you should be able to find small ways to make it less of a pain. In general, these strategies become more effective with practice.
Here are some tips on taking the stress out of your life on the road — some can even save you time and money while helping you find your zen:
- Begin relaxed and rested. The first step to staying calm is to start out calm. You want to drive when you’re feeling your best, both physically and emotionally. That means different things for different people, so finding your groove could take a bit of experimentation. For example, you may need to adjust your sleep schedule to be sure you begin your morning commute well rested. If your family’s inability to load into the car on time puts you in a sour mood, setting an earlier departure time might make things go more smoothly. Don’t drive “hangry”. Take time for a good breakfast so that the little things won’t affect your mood. Whatever the situation, try to recognize when you’re not at your best and take steps to change it.
- Drive at a safe speed. Slowing down improves safety for everybody on the road—you, your passengers, other drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and even wildlife. Driving the speed limit may seem simple, but it offers multiple stress reducers. You won’t feel like you’re in a hurry, so you’ll be less likely to do anything reckless. You’ll have an easier time responding to other drivers’ careless maneuvers. And to top it off, you won’t get that sinking feeling every time you see a police car parked on the median.
- Cut out distractions. Technology is an often-cited distraction for drivers, and with good reason. While reliable statistics linking cell phone use with car accidents are hard to come by, a recent study showed that drivers may use their cell phones while behind the wheel 90% of the time. Putting down or hanging up the phone not only reduces your potential for accidents but also gives you space to “unplug” after a long or stressful day in order to recharge. It’s not just technology, however. Other common distractions include grooming, food and drink, other passengers, and drowsiness.
- Allow extra time and take more breaks. The longer the trip, the more things can go wrong. Every one of those things adds to your stress and costs you time. Give yourself extra time for long trips. That will help you keep your cool in stand-still traffic and allow you to take more 15-minute stops to rest and refresh. Long trips become a lot less stressful when you devote more attention to physical comfort and less attention to beating the clock.
Technology can improve — or impair — the driving experience
Smartphone apps have evolved beyond basic navigation tools. They now offer a range of ways to optimize your driving by helping you pinpoint bad habits and better understand the sources of your irritation.
However, technology can also be a serious distraction when you’re driving. Before using a new app on your commute, be sure to familiarize yourself with the app and set it up to begin running before you start your commute. Technology that isn’t working properly can be a source of frustration and distracted driving can easily lead to an accident.
Here are a few ways to supplement your self-improvement efforts with technology:
- Track and analyze your driving habits. Apps that track how you drive can give you feedback on habits you may not notice, such as braking heavily, accelerating too quickly or driving well above the speed limit consistently. Some insurers even offer apps that offer discounts on your premiums if you follow safe driving habits.
- Check traffic conditions. Apps that report live traffic conditions can alert you to bottlenecks and accidents on your route. When traffic jams slow you down or bring your commute to a halt, not knowing how long it will take to get to your destination adds to your stress. Research suggests that predictable situations stress us out less than unpredictable ones. Simply knowing the traffic conditions will give you the opportunity to reroute your trip or change your departure time.
- Find the nearest or cheapest gas station. Running low on gas in an unfamiliar place can be frustrating and stressful, or even downright scary. Fortunately, many navigation apps can locate the nearest gas station for you, so you can plan ahead and refuel before your trip comes to a grinding, dispiriting halt. Some gas apps will even help save you money by telling you which nearby gas station offers the best price.
Whether you rely on your own perception, a phone app or a combination of both, each small step you take to reduce driving-related stress adds up. Even if you never reach a state of perfect calm, chances are good you can find ways to save time, money and aggravation—making the roads safer for everybody at the same time.
Paid partnership with The Balance.