- When you’re driving, it’s very common to feel stressed.
- Driving stress has been implicated as a risk factor of both heart disease and heart attack.
- Researchers have found that playing music while driving may reduce the effects of stress on your heart.
When you’re stuck in heavy traffic, it’s very common to feel stressed. Many things can go wrong while you’re on the road, causing your heart to race and your blood pressure to soar.
Research indicates that the stress of your daily commute may take its toll over time. Driving stress has been implicated as a risk factor of both heart disease and heart attack.
You don’t have to succumb to this stress, however. Researchers say your best weapon against it may, in fact, be your car stereo.
In an October 2019 study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine, researchers looked at how music affected heart stress.
They chose five healthy women for the study. They were 18 to 23 years old.
Study author Vitor Engrácia Valenti notes only women were chosen for this study because “previous studies provided evidence that women are more sensitive to auditory stimulation.”
Valenti says he and his team chose people for the study who they considered to be non-habitual drivers.
They did this because they felt that more experienced drivers would have an easier time coping with stress.
The researchers then had the five women drive the same route under the same circumstances on two different days. The only difference? The second day they were listening to instrumental music on the car stereo.
To judge how stress was affecting the women, the researchers used heart rate monitors attached to their chest.
They used the monitors to look at heart rate variability.
Heart rate variability refers to changes in the amount of time between heartbeats that occur as you go about your daily life.
Heart rate variability increases during relaxation and decreases during stress.
When the researchers looked at the data from the heart rate monitors, they found that heart rate variability was greater when the women drove with music, meaning they were more relaxed.
According to Valenti, “During a stressful situation, the sympathetic nervous system releases catecholamines (adrenaline and noradrenaline) in the blood, increasing cardiac demand, heart rate, and blood pressure.”
When this occurs, he said, “Persons with cardiovascular risks (obese, diabetics, high LDL cholesterol levels) are more vulnerable to sudden death caused by stress.”
Dr. Satjit Bhusri, assistant professor of cardiology at Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell, further noted, “We are starting to understand more and more the concept of stress-induced heart disease, otherwise known as broken heart syndrome.”
Broken heart syndrome, or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, is a condition that can be triggered by stress or extreme emotion. It can sometimes also be brought on by illness or surgery.
During an episode of broken heart syndrome, part of the heart is temporarily unable to pump normally. The rest of the heart either continues on as usual or pumps more forcefully.
People with broken heart syndrome may experience symptoms similar to a heart attack, such as chest pain.
However, it’s a treatable condition. Usually the heart returns to normal within a few days or weeks.
Can chronic stress cause additional problems with the heart?
Dr. Ragavendra Baliga, a cardiologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, thinks it’s possible.
“It is well recognized that extreme stress — for example loss of a child — can result in enlargement of the heart (takotsubo cardiomyopathy). It would not surprise me if lesser amounts of stress have an impact on the heart, but generally it is a resilient organ,” he said.
“Considering that stress during driving is one of the more intense risks for cardiac sudden complications, this scientific evidence provides results to motivate people to listen to music during driving, ” Valenti said.
As far as the type of music you should be listening to, Baliga points to a
Valenti and his team used instrumental music for their study, noting that “language content in the music has a different impact, depending upon the individual.”
“Moreover, a previous study published by our group reported that the same instrumental music improved the effects of antihypertensive medication,” he said.
So, when stress hits, your best bet for relaxing yourself is probably to play something slow and soothing without any voice content, such as classical or instrumental music.
In addition to playing relaxing music, there are other things you can do to reduce your stress even more.
Geico offers the following suggestions for reducing your stress while driving:
- Be aware of traffic patterns, and build in time for delays.
- When someone gets under your skin, resist the urge to respond.
- Try slow breathing techniques to reduce your anxiety.
- Practice driving in situations that cause you anxiety during off-peak times to build your confidence.
- Let go of blame when things go wrong.
- When stress hits, pull over and do a few neck or back stretches to relax yourself.
- Block calls and texts until you’re safely at your destination if they’re causing you to feel stressed or distracted.
- Cope with long wait times by finding something productive to do during that time.