Tag Archives: stress


For this school year, I am commuting 62 miles each way to where I teach. That translates to an hour’s drive in the morning, and on the days of after school meetings, anywhere from 70 to 90 minutes for the drive home.

After 14 years of teaching just four miles from my home, and several times a year walking home from school, you can perhaps begin to imagine the impact this change of time spent sitting in a car has had on me – less time available for walking, poor air quality (though I recirculate the interior air while driving on I-95 so as to minimize the trucking fumes), muscle strain from sitting in one position, and stress from intense concentration so as to keep my drive safe.

The Hidden Toll of Traffic Jams, in the November 2011 Health & Wellness section of The Wall Street Journal, discusses the impact of traffic emissions on commuters, including this tidbit:

And older men and women long exposed to higher levels of traffic-related particles and ozone had memory and reasoning problems that effectively added five years to their mental age, other university researchers in Boston reported this year. The emissions may also heighten the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and speed the effects of Parkinson’s disease.

That last sentence is fascinating to me because my Dad commuted daily from New Hyde Park, NY to Hasbrouck Heights, NJ for upwards of 20 years. While his distance was half of my current commute, the time spent in the car was about equal due to the enormous volume of traffic crossing the George Washington Bridge.

And why is this fascinating? My Dad developed Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s in his later years. To be sure, some of that was likely hard-wired into his DNA, but “heighten the risk” and “speed the effects” make me wonder about the commute’s impact. 

Bruce McEwen, in a March 2011 Dana Foundation article Effects of Stress on the Developing Brain, talks about the effects of stress on the brain and body. “Besides major life events, abuse and neglect, it is the ordinary day-to-day experiences in family, neighborhood, commuting and work, and school that affect brain and body function and promote those health damaging behaviors.

A recent acquaintance, who crafts infographics, sent me this infographic describing The Killer Commute. The graphic is provided by CollegeAtHome.com and it speaks volumes! She asked for my feedback, and this is what I had to say: 

The graphic is a killer! Okay, what I mean is, it depicts my experience – all the “yuck” parts of commuting. I had already determined to leave my job (and gave notice in January that I did not want another contract), but if I hadn’t already done that, the graphic would have convinced me to do so.
The parts covering health detriments are intense, (perhaps I can use them to drum up business for a “Yoga for Commuters” class….)
I only have two issues with an otherwise highly effective and convincing graphic – it is demoralizing! And the sources at the bottom were difficult for me to read.


Think about something you remember well. Most likely that something produced an emotional response in you. Be it positive or negative, the more intense your emotional response, the stronger your memory of that particular event. It turns out that memories encoded through emotions are the strongest of all our memories.

Cortisol gets released from the adrenal glands (located above the kidneys) in response to strong stimuli, especially if the stimuli causes you some stress, again either positive or negative. Research has shown that cortisol plays a role in memory and learning, although too much of it causes the opposite effect of not thinking or remembering clearly. When the brain perceives strong stress, cortisol partners with adrenaline to deal with fight or flight. A little bit of cortisol is helpful but too much of it can be detrimental.The Human Brain and Stress page at The Franklin Institute Science Museum contains informative explanations of the effects of noise on creating stress within the brain, and the impact of stress on memory and gender. About three-quarters along on the page you will find information about the role of Cortisol.