Driving can be very stressful, particularly if you are stuck in heavy traffic or are an inexperienced driver, and this stress will eventually take its toll on the heart. However, researchers now confirm that there is a simple fix for this problem: listening to the right music while driving.
Past 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 the United States.
One source of frequent stress is driving, either due to the stressors associated with heavy traffic or the anxiety that often accompanies inexperienced drivers.
Does this mean, though, that people who drive on a daily basis are set to develop heart problems, or is there a simple way of easing the stress of driving?
According to a new study by researchers from São Paulo State University in Marília, Brazil, Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom, and the University of Parma in Italy, there is.
In a study paper that features in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine, the researchers report the encouraging results of a study involving inexperienced drivers, noting that listening to music while driving helps relieve the stress that affects heart health.
“We found that cardiac stress in the participants in our experiment was reduced by listening to music while they were driving,” says principal investigator Prof. Vitor Engrácia Valenti.
For their study, the researchers recruited five 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.
“We opted to assess women who were not habitual drivers because people who drive frequently and have had a license for a long time are better adapted to stressful situations in traffic,” explains Prof. Valenti.
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. This measure was necessary, the investigators explain, to make sure that there was no reduction in stress due to the volunteers being familiar with the cars.
“To increase the degree of traffic stress, we asked them to drive a car they did not own. Driving their own car might help,” says Prof. Valenti.
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,” explains the lead investigator.
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 attenuated the moderate stress overload the volunteers experienced as they drove,” says Prof. Valenti.
To readers who may be wondering why the researchers turned specifically to female participants in their study, the lead investigators explain that, at this stage, they wanted to be able to rule out the potential influence of sex-specific hormones.
“If men, as well as women, had participated, and we had found a significant difference between the two groups, female sex hormones might have been considered responsible,” notes Prof. Valenti.
The results of the small-scale experiments, the researchers argue, 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.
“Listening to music could be […] a preventive measure in favor of cardiovascular health in situations of intense stress, such as driving during rush hour.”
Prof. Vitor Engrácia Valenti