Finding Mindfulness in the Stress of Heavy Traffic
by Beth Glosten
It is 5:30pm. You have a 6:30pm meeting in Seattle. You are driving westbound on the SR520 bridge -- slowly. There has been an accident on the bridge. You are going no faster than a crawl. Or, you have tickets to the Opera. You are traveling down Mercer Street slower than if you were walking. You wonder if you’ll get there in time. Any of these scenarios sound familiar?
Heavy and slow-moving traffic in the Puget Sound region is a common cause for stress. The population of the city is growing: in 2017, Seattle had grown 18.7% since 2010. These 114,000 people brought cars with them. The obvious result: more traffic congestion and longer drive-times. The city’s geography contributes to our heavy traffic – it is hemmed between Puget Sound and Lake Washington. On some highways, if there is a blocking accident, there are few alternative routes. While there are efforts to make the city friendly for pedestrians and bicyclists, suffice to say we are in a transition – cars continue to clog the streets and freeways. Even if highways could be expanded to accommodate the growing population, data from other cities show that adding more lanes and more space for cars just leads to more cars on the road, not decreased travel times.
So, face it. Clogged traffic is here to stay in Seattle. The good news? Mindfulness can help us deal with it. For me, mindfulness has made a huge difference in my traffic experience. I used to live in Redmond, WA. I would dread making the trek into Seattle at rush hour. It was a horrible experience! I recall sitting in my car, barely crawling along, thinking “I can’t stand this! I’m going to jump out of my skin!” I’d feel anger and frustration at the other cars/drivers on the road that were “getting in my way.”
Suffice to say, this mindset increased my stress. It was not helpful.
Here are some thoughts on reframing your mindset while in bad traffic.
First, if you are stuck in heavy traffic, remember, you are part of it. Own it! Reframe your experience as being part of the problem, not a victim of the problem. In all likelihood, your reason for being on the road is no more or less valid than anyone else’s.
Second, utilize STOP practice – the acronym for: Stop, Take a breath, Observe, then Proceed. Stop, look around you. See the community of drivers around you. You are not alone in your situation and frustration! Take a breath – let the soothing effect of a deep breath relax your body. Observe your body. Can your shoulders soften? Can you let go of your clenched jaw? Feel what other sensations you notice in your body that might be caused by the tension of being stuck in traffic. As you proceed, acknowledge the challenge that everyone around you is experiencing.
Third, label your experience. Acknowledge that your traffic experience is unpleasant, saying to yourself “this is hard, this is not fun.” Offering yourself these words helps you frame the situation as what it is: traffic - only traffic - it is not a personal affront.
Fourth, see yourself as part of a traffic community. Can you acknowledge the others around you who are similarly suffering in traffic? Along with yourself, offer compassion to your whole community of traffic sufferers. Send phrases of loving kindness to yourself and others in traffic such as: “may I/you stay calm,” “may I/you find patience,” “may I/you accept this situation of slow-moving traffic.”
Fifth, be a helpful part of this traffic community! Let the next car merge into your lane (really, cutting them off will NOT get you to your destination any sooner). Plan your journey to allow plenty of time to change lanes and make turns. Avoid tailgating - hanging on the bumper of the car in front of you will also not get you to where you’re going any faster, and it risks an accident. Wave to those who let you in when changing lanes to say “thank you.” It makes both you and the other driver feel better! On city streets, be respectful of bicyclists and pedestrians.
Let mindfulness help you contribute to a civil and safe traveling (albeit slowly) community.
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