We locked Kaci in a car with a doctor for her commute; what we learned could literally save YOUR life

Above: Kaci freaks out in traffic, as a doctor monitors her stress response. Darn you, 405!

SEATTLE -- You arrive at your destination, feeling stressed; and you haven't even walked through the door yet.

You may have your commute to thank; and it's not just your imagination. Just last year, a Tom Tom study found Seattle to have the 5th worst traffic in the nation, with commuters adding 89 hours to their drive times each year.

That adds up to almost four whole days of sitting in traffic.

Dr. Brad Lichtenstein is a naturopath and chair of the Homeopathy Department at Bastyr University. He strapped me up to a biofeedback machine, monitoring my heart rate, breathing, and sweat response as I battled a very congested, very frustrating 405 morning commute between Lynnwood and Bellevue.

The results were shocking.

The experiment

We figured my stress was registering, that wasn't the surprising part. (I was, after all, yelling anytime someone cut me off or forgot to wave 'thank you'.) The surprising part was discovering that how we physically absorb stress during our commute can last well into the day. And if we're doing this to ourselves twice a day? That build up can be bad for our health.

"The research is pretty clear... chronic stress causes your immune system to change," Dr. Lichtenstein says. "So that's why many of these people who go to primary care providers, who have know diagnosable disease, end up having a diagnosable disease ten years later."

My issue, we discovered, is driving alone. My stress levels were fine until we realized I had been talking too much. Once Dr. Lichtenstein commanded five full minutes of conversational silence, my heart rate spiked almost immediately. I thought yelling to myself was a way to vent it all out, and though I told myself I was fine, my heart rate spiked from a resting rate of about 75, up to 150 and 175.  I started sweating- and, in fact, we noticed that once my sweat elevated in a stressful traffic situation, it stayed that way, even after we had returned to the station to debrief.

Stress and its affect on the body

Now imagine your body is experiencing this every day. Your heart rate is up; perhaps you tense your shoulders or grip the steering wheel when you're stressed; and now you head into work or to run errands carrying all of that stress with you. Over time, it can be deadly; all because stress causes an increase in a hormone called cortisol, or glucocortisodes (GC for short).

"What we do know is chronic stress and GC production prevents the ability of the immune system to fight cancers and infection," Dr. Lichtenstein says. He says it doesn't mean stress causes cancer, but research shows how it impacts your immune system's ability to fight any disease. And, keep in mind all of this traffic stress is just stress trying to GET somewhere; think of all the other stressors we all have in our lives, and  how it's adding up in our bodies!

We can't change traffic; so what the heck do we do about it?

Breathe. I know, I know; it's like someone telling you to calm down when you're amped up about something, I get it! But stick with me on this for a moment.

After going through an hour and a half or so of traffic, I was livid. I don't know how people do this every day, sometimes twice a day; it's completely maddening. And yet I had one more hurtle before we were safely back at the station: the dreaded merge from the 520 floating bridge, across five lanes of I-5, over to the Mercer Street exit in Seattle. If you've ever experienced this merge, you know the exit feels like it's about two feet away from 520, and that's not a lot of time to squeeze through all of those lanes.

But we tried a little something: Dr. Lichtenstein had a harp sound that he played, and he asked me to breath in along with it for five counts; then out along with it for five counts. It made me laugh at first- this harp sound and me doing yoga breaths as, I swear, every car around me refused to let me in and consistently slammed on their brakes.

A funny thing happened.

Almost immediately, my heart rate slowed down to match my breathing. As I merged, I was no longer focusing on being angry at the lack of 'thank-you wavers', or that jerk who sped up into my blind spot just as I had decided to move over one lane. I was focusing on breathing, and it took me outside of the current situation and reminded me this was just a temporary stress space.

So, I slowed my breathing and heart rate. Big deal, right? Actually, yes. Back at the station, Dr. Lichtenstein showed me my chart; and pointed out what happened the minute I started slowing down my breaths:

"Your heart rate didn't go up to 150; it was going down to 68 and up to 90, and it's completely in sync with your breathing. Heart rate variability-- breathing and heart rate -- is a better predictor of mortality and morbidity across all diseases. They find that when people can get into this coherant state, their blood pressure drops, (and) their nerve system gets more in balance."

The takeaway

You can't control how fast you're moving in gridlock. You can control your response to it inside the car. Dr. Lichtenstein says to scan your body; are your shoulders up by your neck? Are you tensing your hands around the steering wheel? Simply noticing and releasing those muscles can lower your stress response. Is your breathing shallow? Perhaps you're holding your breath. Maybe you're hyperventilating. Notice it; and try breathing using the technique above.

My advice? Check in on your breath throughout the whole day. After following Dr. Lichtenstein's advice in traffic, I started checking in often, and noticed I often hold my breath without realizing it. That's a stress response!

We had a lot of you tell us on our Q13 FOX News facebook page how YOU cope with traffic; the advice is great! Everything from blowing bubbles (it makes her laugh and de-stress in stop and go traffic) to listening to books on tape; even singing out loud. (Dr. Lichtenstein says singing is great because that along forces you to focus on your breath.)

We've all taught our bodies how to physically interpret stress; these techniques over time can teach our bodies a new way that potentially won't raise our stress levels. So the next time you're in traffic and some jerk-- I mean, some lovely driver-- cuts you off, try these on for size, and see if you can make it more of a habit.

It just might save your life!