Taking the stress out of commuting

1. December 2022

Between twenty and sixty minutes: that’s how long it takes every second person in Germany to get to work and back. One in four spends an hour or more travelling. TÜV NORD psychologist Dennis Dal Mas explains what makes commuting stressful and what can be done to mitigate that stress.



#explore: Germany is a nation of commuters, even though it has been shown that long journeys to work are a cause of stress. What makes commuting so wearing for people?

Dennis Dal Mas: The first important factor here is time. The longer the journey to work takes, the less time is left over for other things, such as leisure pursuits or the family. This is before the negative emotions or feelings that arise when people are commuting are even factored in: these include, for instance, anger, frustration and impatience at being stuck in a traffic jam yet again. These feelings and emotions can also end up being taken home, of course – where they can be inflicted on the partner or children. 


Which routes or means of transport can we take to arrive at our destination in a less stressed-out state?

Studies have shown that commuting by car is particularly stressful. Although driving can be enjoyable, experience shows that navigating rush hour traffic and always driving the same route takes most of the fun out of it. Particularly advantageous are those means of transport which involve physical activity. Walking or cycling. In the idea scenario, our walk or cycle route will take us through nature or along a river. In other words, through a park or the greenbelt instead of along some arterial road. This will reduce our stress levels and demonstrably lighten our mood.

Whether this can be done depends, of course, on where we live and where our workplace happens to be. Going by train is also a good solution in principle, because we can get different things done as we travel. This will always depend, of course, on our personal preferences: some people don’t like travelling by train because they prefer their own space on their journey to work.


Dennis Dal Mas has a doctorate in psychology and is the regional director of the East Westphalian branch of the Medical-Psychological Institute (MPI) of TÜV NORD Mobilität.

How can commuting have a negative impact on health?

The implications for our health really can be many and various. A study of over 4,000 working people in Texas showed that anyone who travels more than 10 miles, or 16 kilometres, to work will often suffer from higher blood pressure. Anyone who travels more than 15 miles (approx. 24 kilometres) will also tend to be overweight. This is due, on the one hand, to the lack of movement that is often associated with commuting. And the stress that can arise when we’re stuck in a traffic jam or miss our connecting train. When we’re stressed, our level of cortisol rises. The body breaks down proteins to release more glucose. This “stress hormone” thus has an important function in that it literally gets us fit for active phases. However, when an elevated level of cortisol becomes chronic, it weakens the immune system and results in increased blood pressure. This in turn increases the risk of heart disease and, by elevating the level of glucose in the blood, also makes us more vulnerable to diabetes. Other consequences of higher levels of cortisol induced by stress include disturbed sleep, concentration issues, anxiety and depression. There are also external factors that can impact on our health during the daily commute. If our route takes us past fast food restaurants and we are in any case short of time, we may end up constantly eating in them. A US study has shown that commuters’ body-mass index (BMI) increases in direct proportion to the quantity of fast-food restaurants in their vicinity, which is in turn an indicator of obesity.


You mentioned possible effects on our private life. Can commuting really have a negative impact on partner relationships?

If one of the partners has a longer commute, the other partner will often have to gear their life to this arrangement: they may have to reduce their own working hours and take on more responsibility at home and for raising the children. These days, it’s often women who then find themselves at a professional disadvantage. In comparison to couples who don’t travel so far to work, studies have shown that such couples are forty percent more likely to split up. 


And what about the impact on the kids?

Commuting can affect children before they’ve even been born. Studies have revealed that the birth weight of children decreases in inverse proportion to the length of the journey to work. In other words, the stress experienced by the mother has the effect of inhibiting growth. But the suffering of children as a result of the long distances commuted by their parents does not end at birth. For instance, the findings show that such children have more issues with antisocial behaviour and get into conflict more often with their peers. Not only that, but they also develop more emotional issues if one parent, usually the father, only comes home at weekends.


Are we stuck with commuting stress, or we can we do things to compensate for it in our free time?

Exercise is, of course, a good way of compensating for commuting stress, and that not only in our free time. We can also integrate it into our working lives. By doing a few knee bends or something similar during a break, for instance. There’s a whole raft of exercises for a wide range of levels of fitness that involve using our own body weight. But I would particularly recommend also doing things to counteract our own internal stress factors. Meditation or mindfulness training, for example. Mindfulness is used very widely in psychotherapy and can help us distance ourselves from anger and impatience in specific stress situations. Taking cold showers is also a tried-and-tested approach. This can reduce our stress level and help us to relax. There are even things you can do to mitigate stress in the workplace, for instance by taking yourself to the park during your lunchbreak and doing other things that you enjoy.


But what if I must commute: how can I make good use of the time it takes?

That depends how you commute, of course. And on your tastes and preferences. You can use your time on the train effectively by reading, listening to audiobooks, watching films or just having a rest. Depending on your job, you can also work. It doesn’t have to be a negative experience: in this way, you can get things done on your way to work which you won’t then have to attend to later. The options open to you in a car are a lot more limited, of course. You can listen to music or an audiobook, but you shouldn’t do anything that will distract you from driving. If you can arrange it, it’s a good idea to cover part of your journey by bike. Or on foot. If you live in a city, for instance, and don’t have private parking, you can make a deliberate choice to park your car further away from your home. You will then at least spare yourself the chore of finding a space close to your home, which can in some cases be really stressful. And, at the same time, you’ll be treating yourself to a couple of extra walks in the morning and the evening. If your job and your employer allow it, you can also transfer some of your work to home. If you find that commuting is still taking up lots of time and shredding your nerves, you should think about moving or changing jobs in the long term to make one or more of these things possible.