Traffic congestion in Malta is a painstaking reality which unfortunately, in some way or another, affects us all. The jammed roads packed with polluting emitting machines, loud honks and exasperated drivers take a toll on practically anyone around. From the pedestrians going about their business, the environmentally friendly guy who decided to ride his bike to work to the passengers on the bus who are praying for a helicopter to come to the rescue, so maybe, they might make it to their destination on time. Yet, admittedly, the cohort that is probably most affected by this daily horrific saga is that of the commuters behind the wheel. Those who need to get to their workplace every morning and cannot possibly avoid “rush hours”.
The number of registered vehicles in Malta has risen from 346,918 in 2015 to 375,041 in 2018 (8.1% increase in vehicles in 3 years)(1). Dealing with this macro-problem requires major structural changes to Maltese roads, improved efficiency of public transportation as well as a change in mindset within the Maltese culture; with the use of car-pooling, public transport and bikes gaining more popularity. Therefore, it seems like this issue – just like your traffic-jammed car – isn’t going anywhere soon. However, do not despair! We cannot deal with the assembly line of cars stuck in front of us on a very unwelcome Monday morning, YET, we have the power to deal and change our experience in the assembly line. When the things that overwhelm us are beyond our power to control, our best option is to alternate our perception of it, for the sake of our sanity, at least.
Still, it is not just our sanity which is being affected. It is no news that being stuck in traffic is a major cause of stress, anxiety and anger. This means that most commuters start their working day already infused with negative and distressing feelings. Shawn Achor, CEO of GoodThink and one of the world’s leading experts on the connection between happiness and success, argues that decreasing stress and augmenting positivity during our morning commute plays a role in one’s job success. Accordingly, the “greatest competitive advantage at work is a positive and engaged brain”. So how can we unclutter our brain during exhausting traffic jams, in order to get to work with a positive mind-set and accomplishing attitude? Below are five simple methods which many might take for granted, but yet have been empirically proven to decrease stress and anxiety while improving one’s mood and increasing feelings of happiness:
- Be grateful
Achor has discussed how time spent stressing out about traffic, is time which could be put to good use by choosing happiness. He states “as you put your seat belt on to protect your body, also protect your brain by thinking of one thing you are grateful for”. Although one might instinctually feel like a prisoner in his own car, it is not only important but also beneficial to remind oneself the reason for being stuck in traffic; the opportunity of having a job or a home to go back to. Focus on a positive aspect of one’s day or week, rather than the distressing commute.
- Listen to your jams – while stuck in the jam
Numerous studies have revealed that listening to music whilst driving helps relieve stress and increase positive mood. Particularly, a study conducted by Stephen Fairclough, a professor of psychophysiology, looked into different types of music and their effect on drivers’ reaction to traffic jam. The study revealed that blood pressure increased when stuck in traffic, more so when one is listening to either aggressive music or no music at all. While soothing music did it’s trick in calming down the hassled drivers.
- Zone off the traffic and tune in a podcast
If listening to music is not your thing, you can always tune in to a podcast of your choice. Listening to a podcast not only distracts you from the irritating assembly line, but is also an opportunity to engage in a topic which is of interest to you, ranging from politics, psychology to sports. And if you’d rather tune in to something more easy flowing, you can always download an audiobook to keep you going throughout the road. This is the time to finally get absorbed in the story of that book that’s been on your shelf for far too long.
- Breathe like you mean it
When in a stressful situation it is commonplace to hear the phrase “take a deep breath, it’ll calm you down”. This is preached by therapists, yoga teachers, parents and the like. Although this phrase may seem overrated and the act too simplistic, the act of filling your lungs through deep breathing elicits relaxation due to its physiological effect on the nervous system. Deep breathing activates the hypothalamus in the brain, which sends out neurohormones whose job is to inhibit stress-producing hormones. Therefore, this simple act relieves stress and anxiety by triggering a relaxation response in your body. So next time you’re behind the wheel and feel overwhelmed; inhale, exhale and repeat until you feel yourself calming down.
- Practise Mindfulness
Numerous studies have shown that mindfulness; the act of turning one’s awareness to the present moment, helps reduce stress and anxiety. Certainly, you cannot completely zone out as, indeed, you are still part of the traffic. Yet it is still possible to practise such mindfulness techniques by being aware of your breath, the feel of your foot on the pedals and your surroundings. Your mind will undoubtedly start to wander off; from worrying over being late to being angry at the driver who keeps honking to no avail, yet the scope is to refocus on the drive. Notice and accept the feelings nonjudgmentally, and then let them go.