You might be wondering what traffic has to do with mental health. If you travel on the freeways in Los Angeles County, you know. Traffic affects your mind, your body, and your spirit.
Living in urban areas strains the calmest of nervous systems. It seems that something is always intruding the peace and quietude:
Noise: from vehicles in the air and on the ground; lawnmowers and other machines; barking dogs; car horns honking; rap and hip hop played loud enough to shake surfaces 100 feet away
Visual pollution: endless billboards, signs, and buildings selling goods and services; too little organic green, too many hard edges and gray / black surfaces
Over-stimulation of olfactory system: smells from fast-food restaurants, diesel exhaust, barbecue lighter fluid, chem-logs, and smog in general
Heat and sunshine: yes, too much of anything can be stressful, even warm, sunny weather
And then there’s traffic: too many people trying to get to the same place at the same time.
Traffic in LA
Here in Los Angeles County, as in many other parts of Southern California, we talk about traffic the way people who live with seasons talk about weather.
I live in Santa Monica and work in Hollywood.
I live in the valley and work in Santa Monica.
I live in PV and work downtown.
Without hesitation, comes an empathetic “Ugh” from the listener. Everyone who drives knows traffic patterns on the 405 freeway, the 5, the 10, the 110, the 101, and the 105. Don’t get on the freeway going south [or east] after three. Don’t travel north [or west] between 6:30 and 10:30 [AM].
The freeway’s congestion problems are legendary, leading to jokes that the road was numbered 405 because traffic moves at “four or five” miles per hour, or because drivers need “four or five” hours to get anywhere. Indeed, average speeds as low as 5 mph are routinely recorded during morning and afternoon commutes…–Wikipedia
When cars collide on the freeway, all 10 lanes, five south, five north, back up for hours. If you’re on the side of the freeway with the accident, cars squeeze around the wreck backing up the limited accident-free lanes for miles until a tow truck arrives. If you’re on the other side of the freeway, you and everyone else slows down to see what happened. Curiosity killed the cat and stopped the traffic. Traffic reporters call it rubbernecking.
Julio and the 105
When Julio* told me that he lives in Norwalk and works in El Segundo, I understood that as code for the 105 freeway parking lot at rush hour in both directions.
Ugh. My body slumped and my jaw dropped.
He explained that one year ago, after working in management “5 minutes from my home,” the company he worked for was absorbed by another larger corporation.
“They gave me a choice. I could keep my pay and seniority, but I’d have to move down out of management and work 17 miles west of where I live. Of course I accepted. I’m 56. I felt fortunate that I still had a job. I thought how bad could the commute be.”
The first day on the freeway, Julio regretted his decision. He began sending out resumes to find a job closer to home. “I was on the freeway an hour to work and an hour to get home. Sometimes I might sit in my car for an hour and a half,” he said, “I was willing to take less pay and give up my seniority.” Go to sigalert.com and click on a camera on the 105 to see what Julio is up against.
Stress from any stimulus causes muscle tension. Arms, hands, shoulders, neck and jaw are stress magnets. When the body is tense, the mind is rigid. Driving in rush hour traffic can be unhealthy for body, mind, and spirit.
The gratitude attitude wins
Julio had a talk with himself and made a gratitude list. He enjoys the people he works with; he enjoys his new job. He likes just about everything that came with this unplanned change.
He just does not enjoy his commute.
“I realized that I was fighting reality. I wondered what I could do with my time in the car. Instead of getting frustrated and feeling sorry for myself, I decided to use the time to catch up with my children. I call them on my way to work and on my way home. We’ve gotten closer.”
He also uses his commute time to prepare for and digest his day. Not unlike meditation, Julio lets his thoughts flow like clouds in the sky, or cars on the freeway. He problem solves and works through his responses and reactions to interactions that happened during the day or at home. He has no attachment to any particular thought or feeling. He has no expectations about how slow traffic will travel or the time it takes to get where he’s going.
He smiled. “This change has been good for me,” he said. He’s become aware of his need to slow down and cultivate patience.
In Julio vs. the 105, Julio wins! By changing his attitude and accepting what is, Julio is gets peace of mind, body, and spirit. When acceptance is the only path to health and happiness, fighting reality only makes a bad situation worse.