Music while driving helps reduce stress in drivers

As any driver will attest, driving in bumper-to-bumper heavy traffic as it edges its way forward at the pace of a snail is a very stressful experience.

There is plenty of evidence to show that if you repeatedly drive in such heavy-traffic and congested routes on your daily commute, or if you are an inexperienced driver, driving could be a stressful experience.

Previous research has shown that experiencing frequent psychological stress can be a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease, a condition that affects almost half of those aged 20 years and older in many parts of the world. Driving has been identified as one source of frequent stress, either due to the stressors associated with heavy traffic or the anxiety that often accompanies inexperienced drivers.

However, researchers now confirm that there is a simple fix for this problem: listening to the right music while driving.  A new study by researchers at São Paulo State University in Marília, Brazil, Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom, and the University of Parma in Italy, show that encouraging results can be achieved in reducing cardiac stress by listening to music while driving.

For their study, the researchers recruited female volunteers between the ages of 18 and 23 years who were in good health, were not habitual drivers — they drove no more than twice a week — and had received their driver’s license 1–7 years before the start of the study.

The researchers asked the volunteers to take part in two different experiments. On one day, the participants had to drive for 20 minutes during rush hour on a 3 kilometer route in one of the busiest parts of the city of Marília. On this day, the participants did not play any music in the car as they were driving.

On another day, the volunteers had to go through the same motions, with one exception: This time, they listened to instrumental music while driving. In both instances, the participants drove cars that were not their own, to make sure that there was no reduction in stress due to the volunteers being familiar with the cars.

To measure the effect of stress on the heart in each experimental condition, the investigators asked the participants to wear heart rate monitors able to record heart rate variability in real time.

The activity of two key systems — the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system — influences heart rate variability. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for regulating the flight or flight response, which is the automatic bodily reaction to stressful, anxiety-inducing situations. Meanwhile, the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for ‘rest and digest’ processes.

Elevated sympathetic nervous system activity reduces heart rate variability, whereas more intense parasympathetic nervous system activity increases it.

The researchers then analyzed the measurements that they had collected through the heart rate monitors on the two occasions. They found that when the participants had listened to music while driving under stressful conditions, they had higher heart rate variability than when they had driven under stressful conditions without any music. Listening to music appears to attenuate the moderate stress overload the volunteers experienced as they drove,” said the research team.

The results of the small-scale experiments, the researchers argued, suggest that listening to relaxing music could, indeed, be an easy way of preventing stress levels from escalating and affecting the heart when someone finds themselves stuck in traffic.