By Dr. Kwame McKenzie, Medical Director of Underserved Populations at CAMH and CEO, Wellesley Institute
Imagine you are a parent who has to pick their child up from daycare. It closes at 6 pm and you have to pay a high fee for every minute you are late. You work 30 minutes away. You leave at 5:15 pm as usual, but you get stuck in traffic. There is no getting out of it. Every minute you sit there, you become more and more anxious and angry. You imagine how much it will cost, how annoyed the daycare staff will be, how embarrassed you will be and how your child will feel because they are the last one to be picked up.
Or imagine you are in a car on your way to work. You were going to be on time for your meeting but… traffic congestion. Your boss will be there on time but you will not. While you are sitting there, you wonder what that will it look like and how will it affect your future?
There are lots of scenarios, but you get the picture. Traffic congestion causes people problems. Getting stuck in traffic once in a blue moon does not cause too many long-term health issues. But if it happens twice a week on a regular basis, it can have an impact on your mental health.
Traffic congestion increases stress, and studies show that those exposed to traffic congestion regularly have higher rates of stress, higher instances of depression, and an increased risk of anxiety disorders. This is due to a couple of factors: not being in control and things not being predictable. Traffic congestion makes your life less predictable; it makes you feel you are not in control and so it produces stress.
And there are knock-on impacts. If you are a stressed parent the quality of interaction with your children may not be as good. A child’s social brain development depends on the face-to-face time they have with parents. If parents are angry, anxious or just plain tired, it can have an impact on how their brains develop. They are more prone to physical and psychological problems and parents are more likely to have problems as a result.
Similarly, the added stress can put a strain on your relationship, and can also impact your work life. If you are a stressed worker, you will not be as effective in your job.
But the problem is greater than the individual. Congestion increases the amount of air pollution from cars. There is more and more evidence now coming through of increased rates of anxiety, depression, memory problems and some say even psychosis, linked to air pollution.
The rates of congestion are increasing in Canada’s major cities. In Toronto, rates of congestion have been growing quicker than anywhere else in Canada. And the boom in housing development and infrastructure work has made Toronto a very congested city.
If you are going to get caught in congestion you need to think about your driving environment. You can control that. For example, listening to a radio show you enjoy, or finding good audio books or podcasts may help decrease stress, whereas listening to certain types of music may increase it. Mindfulness approaches may help you find small pieces of enjoyment while you travel. If you are thinking of changing your schedule and waking up early to beat the rush, make sure to leave early at the end of the day so that you preserve the time you need for yourself and your family. Carpooling and sharing the journey decreases stress, and may also allow you to avail of HOV lanes in the GTA. Journeys go quicker when you are with others.
You can read more about ways to manage your stress through this blog by my CAMH colleague Dr. Donna Ferguson.
Decreasing the time of commuting improves your mental health and physical health, but we cannot all move closer to work. For those who do live relatively close to their workplace, active commuting such as walking to and from public transit, and walking or cycling to and from work all improve your health – both mental and physical – and they are more predictable than driving.
Like it or not, for many, driving is a necessary part of the workday, and delays, traffic and detours are generally out of our hands. Knowing and accepting this is the first step in managing our stress during the morning and afternoon rush.