Road Hazards Ahead

Anyone who's ever sat in a traffic jam-with or without a full bladder-knows there's plenty not to like when you're on the road for an hour or more at a stretch. Honking horns, road rage, and noisy seatmates are a few irritants- but the thing that makes a trip universally unbearable is basic unpredictability, according to Tim Lomax, a senior research engineer at Texas A&M University's Texas Transportation Institute. "The stress comes from not knowing when you're going to get where you're going," he says, "and from the time you're wasting." (And that stress can make you lose your focus or be tempted to multitask behind the wheel, both of which increase your risk for a crash-not good.)

Overloaded schedules are part of the reason that commuting takes a greater toll on women, who are more likely than men to add errands- dropping off dry cleaning, picking up groceries and kids- to their daily commute, says a study published last year in the Journal of Health Economics. And women are less likely to get a payoff from a long commute, in terms of a boost in income or job satisfaction.

Commuting can be hard on your love life too. "You're spending less time together, which makes communication difficult-and that can create dissatisfaction and edginess in a relationship," says psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., author of The Commuter Marriage: Keep Your Relationship Close While You're Far Apart.

Take Back the Wheel

The downsides of commuting are far from inevitable, though. Try these five strategies to bring out the upsides.

1) Look for the payoffs.
Several years ago, a pair of Swiss economists estimated that someone with a one-hour commute would have to earn 40 percent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks to work. Now, you probably won't get that kind of a raise in your lifetime, but your round-trip will be less of a drag if the reward you're reaping because of it-whether that reward is professional fulfillment or a nice house with great neighbors- is meaningful enough to you. "For an awful lot of people, a long commute is a perfectly acceptable tradeoff for something that they want," says Pisarski.

2) Expect the worst and hope for the best.
Because the loss of control we feel when our commute doesn't go as planned is a major stress trigger, plan for a catastrophe. "Accept the fact that you will be in traffic congestion," says Lomax. Check out the road conditions and traffic before you leave (Lomax suggests inrex.com, navteq.com, and Google traffic), or get a GPS unit that gives you real-time traffic reports. And remember to have an escape hatch-alternate routes or modes of transport. If it will help, leave 15 minutes earlier.

3) Vary your route.
"There's a tendency to fall into a very fixed pattern, to put your brain in neutral and go on autopilot," says Pisarski. Resist that impulse. Changing your route not only engages your brain, which can make the drive more interesting, but also puts more data in your mental GPS, which may help you escape future traffic snares.

4) Think quality, not quantity.
City versus highway driving makes a difference to more than your gas mileage. Stop-and-go traffic encompasses the very worst of the driving experience, a rapid-fire switch between lethargy (stop) and urgency (go!) that's bound to increase tension. And even if it's the shortest distance in miles, that kind of driving doesn't give you nearly the psychological satisfaction of cruising along a highway. "A 90-minute commute that's covering 40 or 60 miles is a whole lot more acceptable than a 90-minute commute covering 15 miles," says Pisarski. Map out a route that avoids lots of traffic lights and stop signs and you may find yourself feeling a lot better.

The stress comes from the time you're wasting.