Mental health

Nicole-Louise Ransford, Junior Physiologist at AXA Health

Managing your commuting experience


14 September 2020

Have you noticed any changes in how you feel about your commute? Do you have family members who are anxious about this aspect of returning to school or the workplace? If so you’re not alone.

As more of us get back to something resembling our pre-lockdown routines, AXA Health Junior Physiologist Nicole-Louise Ransford shares some tips and techniques to help manage your commuting experience. 

What is your commuting experience?

Even before the pandemic we will all have had different experiences of our daily commute. For some, battling with heavy traffic and delays, it may have been a stressful time and one they’ve happily avoided over recent months. Others may have appreciated the opportunity to relax, catch up with family and friends, or listen to music or a favourite podcast uninterrupted. Others still may have used the time to transition between their home and work lives and the different roles and personas they adopt in each.

How you felt about your commute before will affect how keen or otherwise you are to get back to it. Another important factor is how much – and how – things may have changed, because, frankly, as human beings we don’t particularly like change. In fact, we’re programmed to respond to new or uncertain situations in a state of alertness, on the look-out for any perceived threats. So adapting – once again – to a different routine can make us all feel anxious or stressed. 

For those reliant on public transport, their new commute is likely to be a very different experience indeed. And while the mandatory wearing of face masks and need to keep socially distanced are in place to help make us all safer on our train, bus or Tube journeys, these very visible reminders of the threat of the coronavirus might increase any existing anxiety, worry or fear you may have. 

We may not recognise these emotions for what they are or what’s causing them, so it can be helpful to stop and think about how you’re feeling about your commute.

If you do feel worried or anxious, what exactly is it about the journey that’s causing these feelings, and is it actually the commute or some other aspect of returning to work, or the workplace that’s to blame.

Once you can identify exactly what’s triggering any negative thoughts, you give yourself the opportunity to work on your response, or even avoid the trigger entirely. More on this later.

The most important thing here is to remember that we will all react differently in any given situation, including returning to your commute. Whatever you’re going through, it’s ok to feel the way you do. What’s more there will be something you can do to help manage that experience, so let’s take a look at some examples. 

Use your past experiences to your advantage 

One way to help manage this new commute into work is to think, “I’ve dealt with difficulties before”. It might be that you reflect on those occasions, for example, managing the changes that were put in place at the start of lockdown. 

Make a list and keep it with you to use as a prompt. It can be useful to remember the times you’ve overcome challenging circumstances in the past to help boost your resilience in the now. 

Prepare in advance

It helps to plan ahead for your commute. There may be new timetables operating for public transport so make sure you know where you need to be and when to get you to your destination on time and avoid any last-minute surprises. There are even apps available to help you see what trains are full and at what time, if you want – and are able – to flex your hours to avoid overcrowding. Also consider the potential of increased road traffic on certain routes.

Being prepared for the how and when of your commute and what it might look like can help you feel more in control and able to cope with the new experience. It might be that you start to prepare for the return to work weeks before you know you’ll be back in the office, to help you manage your experience when the time comes. 

Test it out

Linking to the above point on preparation, it might be useful for you to gradually phase your return to the workplace following lockdown, if your employer is prepared to support you in this way. If we’ve not done something for a long time or we feel particularly anxious about a situation, we might naturally try to avoid doing it. The trick here is to focus on what we can do to reduce our anxiety without avoiding the situation altogether. 

To start, write down the things you feel anxious, fear or worry about. An example might be getting the bus to work. Take steps to experience the situation in a manageable way until you feel comfortable with it, then take things up a gear and continue with the new behaviour until that, too, feels comfortable and repeat. Using the example given above, you could start by taking the bus for one stop and walking the rest of the way, slowly building it up to riding the bus for the whole journey. 

Focus on the benefits of commuting

Thinking of the positives of a situation can help you overcome any hurdles.  What are the benefits to you of going to work? Is it job satisfaction, improved financial wellbeing, a sense of purpose? If it’s easier, try recognising what you’ll lose by not going to work.

Bringing back the commute will introduce some aspects of normality back into your life. For example, being able to see and communicate face-to-face with other people, having more structure to your day and feeling part of the world again. 

If you’re not yet comfortable with the thought of using public transport, what can you do instead? Could you either walk or cycle to work? Not only would that give you more control over your surroundings, but would increase your daily exercise levels too. Use this time to reflect on your thoughts and plan for the day ahead too. 

Grounding technique

This technique can be used by anyone, anywhere, regardless of your experience and can be particularly helpful if you’re feeling anxious, nervous or panicky. To reduce these feelings, we need to trigger the response of our parasympathetic system, also called the “rest or digest” system.  This will counteract the stress response and help us to reconnect with the present moment and feel calm. 

One version is known as the ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1’ technique. Look for 5 things you can see4 things you can touch3 things you can hear2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. It doesn’t have to be in the that order either. Just using your senses and focusing on what is around you can be very helpful. 

Breathing techniques

Conscious breathing exercises are also helpful tools to overcome anxiety. They can be done anytime, anywhere - before your commute, during and after. Head over to the AXA Health YouTube channel for guided breathing sessions that you can access on-the-go. 

Places to go from here

Before returning to work, it may also be useful to look or ask for information about your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) if you have one, HR policies that may apply to your return to work and any other wellbeing and additional support available to you. Speak with your manager if you have concerns about anything to do with work, returning to the office or your commute. 

Top Tips

  • Remember to be kind to yourself as we learn to adjust again to a new way of commuting and getting back into work.
  • Do what you feel is right for you: prepare, test it out, list the benefits, try grounding and relaxation techniques and make use of any support available to you, through your employer or external sources.
  • Speak up. Talk to your manager, colleagues, friends and family to make the transition back more comfortable. 

“Feelings are much like waves, we can't stop them from coming but we can choose which one to surf.” - Jonatan Mårtensson

References Post-lockdown anxiety.

AXA Health. (2019). Breathing Exercises. 

BBC Headroom. (2020). Graded Exposure

Gobind, J., 2018. Transport anxiety and work performance. SA Journal of Human Resource Management, 16(1), pp.1-7.

Longhurst.D. (2020). 54321 Grounding Technique.

Mental (2020). Looking after your mental health as we come out of lockdown. 

Young (2020). How I’m coping with anxiety about going back to work.

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