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Driving yourself crazy

Gayle Goddard-Taylor -- It's 7 a.m. and you're darting from parking lot to parking lot, trying to find a spot before your train pulls out. If only you hadn't overslept. You park the car just in time, climb aboard as the train rolls away from the platform, and there isn't a seat to be found anywhere.

Or maybe an accident has traffic backed up and you have an early morning presentation. You sit there drumming your fingers on the steering wheel, wondering why the guy behind you is leaning on his horn. Things get hot--both under your collar and under the hood. Then the engine overheats.

Commuting isn't likely to top anyone's list of favorite ways to spend time. There are ways, however, to make it more bearable and also ward off potential disasters.

Take "On the Road" On the Road

Christine Acebo has spent the last decade commuting from Ashford, CT, to Providence, RI, where she is assistant director of Bradley Hospital's Sleep and Chronobiology Research Lab. It's a long, though uncomplicated, commute up Interstate 95 that takes about an hour in ordinary traffic. Acebo avoids a major traffic bottleneck in Providence by leaving earlier or later than the usual rush hour peaks. She has also discovered something that makes the endless stretch of highway seem shorter: audio books.

"Someone gave me a catalog and I ordered a couple and pretty soon it was an addiction," Acebo says. "I probably read 30 books a year this way, mostly mysteries and every now and again some classics."

When Elaine and Don Leete moved to Cape Cod, they quickly nixed the idea of driving to work in Boston jobs, a commute of more than an hour over some of New England's most notorious stress-producing roadways. Driving half an hour just to get to the nearest commuter station didn't have much appeal either. They have settled on a simple, and they think ideal, solution: the bus. "In the morning, I either read the newspaper or take a nap," Leete says. "By the time I get to work, I can hit the ground running."

Go Play in Traffic

John Paul, traffic safety manager for the American Automobile Association of Southern New England, has some practical suggestions for those of us who don't have the option of letting someone else do the driving:

* Leave enough time for the commute. This means factoring in extra time when holiday weekends swell the number of cars on the road.
* Make sure your car is mechanically sound and that the air conditioning and heat work. And dressing appropriately also helps. It may be winter outside but it's 70 degrees in your car, so take the winter jacket off before you start driving. Wear comfortable shoes.
* Make sure the radio/tape player functions properly. Music often soothes frayed nerves. Audio books can take your mind off of traffic congestion altogether.
* Adjust the seat and seat belt to a comfortable position before setting off.

Don't Wig Out

"Don't try to get work done or read while you're driving," says Paul. He gets shivers when he sees the television commercial of a driver with an open laptop in front of him, gabbing on a cell phone. "There are people out there who think that if they're just driving, they're wasting time," he says. "Multi-tasking can go too far."

Once you've sure that your car is commute-worthy, then mentally enduring the traffic jams and rude drivers is your next challenge. If you can't quite concentrate on an audio book, clinical psychologist Dr. Jon Berenson suggests slipping a recording of chants into your tape player. "Chants are a wonderful musical container and a way to focus," says Berenson, who has chants playing in his Providence waiting room as well as in his office. "The other thing I would think of doing is practicing deep breathing to make sure your body is not tensing."

But, Berenson says, the stress produced by a workday commute may be symptomatic of a larger problem. "If your job is one that you hate, your commute will be difficult no matter what you do in the car," he says. "Commuting is a piece within a context."

And if the job isn't an issue, Paul has a few more words of advice. "Driving is nothing more than speeding up and slowing down and you should remember that," he says. "If you're not late, if you're comfortable, you aren't starving, and you don't have to go to the bathroom, how bad is it to sit in a car a little longer?"

Whatever Gets You Through The Rush

That's the approach John Lindahl, a financial advisor for Cornerstone Financial Group, takes. He views the lanes of highway traffic in the same way he looks at a diversified portfolio: one lane may go more quickly, stop more abruptly, while another may seem to crawl at a steady pace. Jumping neurotically from lane to lane isn't likely to be very productive.

"Ten miles down the road, they're all going to be caught up," he says. Lindahl's commute from Marblehead to Burlington, MA, goes through some of the most clogged intersections in the state and takes him anywhere from 35 minutes to more than four hours. His personal stress-reliever on the commute home is a cigar. "I can see Route 128 from my office window," he says. "And I know if I'm going to need a giant Louisville Slugger or a little Corona."

Gayle Goddard-Taylor is a freelance contributor to

© 2003

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