Combat pilots flying over hostile territory should thank their lucky stars that their journey home does not involve catching the 5:15pm from London-Waterloo railway station. The experience might just make them stressed.
Commuters on Britain's rush-hour roads and railways suffer greater anxiety than fighter pilots or riot police facing angry mobs of protesters, according to research published yesterday which suggests that many travelers retreat into a "light hypnotic trance" as a defense mechanism.
Psychologists found that travelers tackling peak-hour congestion experienced heart rates as high as 145 beats per minute, compared to an "at rest" rate of 65 for a healthy young adult.
Volunteers in the study agreed to wear caps with electrodes attached to their heads on their daily journey to work, usually concealed under a baseball cap to avoid curious looks from fellow travelers.
Researchers discovered a surge in cortisol, a hormone secreted when the body is under pressure. They also detected signs that commuters' brains briefly turned inwards and shut down to the outside world -- a defense process dubbed "commuter amnesia."
David Lewis, who carried out the research for the technology firm Hewlett Packard, said: "Many commuters go into a sort of inner world when they're traveling and don't really notice what's happening around them. They shut everything out to take themselves away from a world they find aversive."
He said the symptoms of stress were equivalent to those measured in his past studies using combat pilots and police officers. But for commuters, the experience is worse because of a sense of "impotence."
"Stress is worst when we want to achieve something but we're being stopped from doing so," Lewis said. "The maximum stress would be for somebody on their way to an important meeting when a train just stops in a tunnel, or the traffic stacks up on the motorway."
One in five of Britain's trains typically runs late. According to the UK National Audit Office, 13 percent of trunk roads are congested at least half of the year.
Members of the UK parliament suggested last year that congestion had become so bad that many commuters faced a "daily trauma" in getting to work.
However, experts expressed caution about yesterday's findings. Edmund King, executive director of the motoring organization the RAC Foundation, said mobile phones had eased pressure for travelers who were at least able to warn colleagues if they were late.
While he agreed that delays caused great anxiety, he suggested that they were so regular that they had lost some of their impact: "Congestion is such an everyday occurrence that I think a fighter pilot has got to be suffering more stress than a normal commuter."