Driving Anxiety: Let Music Calm Your Fear
For someone with driving anxiety, getting behind the wheel can be like a trip to the dentist. While many people look forward to a nice long drive, those who have a driving phobia react to it with actual physical symptoms: sweating, palpitations, dry mouth, and dizziness. In extreme cases, people come up with elaborate excuses not to get in the car, or find a friend or relative who can do the driving for them.
Fortunately, one of the most helpful aids is usually right there in your car. Music – the right kind of music – can subconsciously relax the driver, resulting in better driving performance and a pleasurable, worry-free journey. Some people have sensed this for years, but recent studies now give solid scientific support to these ideas.
Most of us don’t need an excuse to turn on the radio or play our favorite CD while driving. Nowadays, it’s rare to find anyone who doesn’t automatically reach for the radio dial or iPod once the engine is on. But before you blast the volume up to 11, take a moment to understand the underlying causes of driving anxiety, and a potential cure.
Root Causes of Fear of Driving
Driving anxiety is a kind of phobia, a fear that is learned over time. Some phobias are based on real dangers in the natural world such as spiders or falling from a high place. So it makes sense that many people are born with a natural aversion to spiders or heights, snakes, or confined places.
Phobias can result in a physical response, what is known as the ‘fight or flight’ reflex. When a danger, or ‘trigger,’ is present, our bodies react with a burst of adrenaline and other hormones. These boost our heart rate and breathing and slow down digestion, allowing us to better combat or flee the perceived danger.
If the danger is real, then all is well; we now have a better chance of living to see tomorrow. But if the fear is irrational, then we’re left with a pulsing heartbeat, queasy stomach, and a surge of anxiety with no outlet for all this extra energy. What saves us from a saber tooth tiger may hinder our performance once we’re behind the wheel.
What causes fear of driving? For some people, it’s the result of an accident or bad driving experience. The mind pairs a negative experience with the emotions and physical reactions that accompanied it, and from then on those responses are triggered just by the sight or thought of getting behind the wheel.
For certain new drivers, though, the phobia can develop simply by imagining a negative experience that never happened, or by being criticized by others, as shown in a study done at the University of British Columbia. They also found that driving anxiety is more common in women than men, and usually begins in the teens or twenties. Even though most victims of this phobia are aware of their problem, many can’t trace the fear to a single incident or ‘trigger.’
Music as a Way of Reducing Stress
Over the last few decades, the power of music to decrease stress has become more and more apparent. Music therapy is now used in hospitals to lessen pain for patients following surgery, as a relaxing agent used to reduce stress for children in refugee camps, and for women having a difficult pregnancy.
How does music relax people? Some theories go all the way back to the womb, where a fetus is exposed to the steady, soothing rhythm of the mother’s heartbeat. It’s no accident, therefore, that music that most closely resembles that rhythm – about 72 beats per minute – is found to be the most relaxing. Think Baroque music, which traditionally is based on that precise tempo.
On a physical level, the right kind of music works to reverse what your body is doing when it switches to the ‘fight or flight’ mode;’ it slows and deepens your breathing, lowers your heart rate, and raises your body temperature. These are sure signs that relaxation is setting in.
Which Kinds of Music Works Best?
Interestingly, much of the research on the beneficial effects of music on driving anxiety is sponsored by insurance companies. One survey done on behalf of Sainsbury’s in England showed that 84% of drivers felt music helped them relax, and 65% felt it was an aid in keeping them awake when they were feeling drowsy. Even though most drivers had a strong preference about the type of music they enjoyed while driving, 31% had no preference at all, so long as there was something playing on the radio.
A recent study done at the University of Newfoundland, Canada found that listening to music while driving decreased stress, especially in heavy traffic situations where stress levels normally increase. People listening to music also had lower aggression levels compared to participants that were driving in silence. The theory here is that music both relaxes the driver at the same time that it distracts from a stressful situation (traffic). Even singing in the car has been shown to increase relaxation and increase driving performance.
All music is not created equal, as far as its ability to overcome driving anxiety. The best music for reducing stress has moderate volume and tempo. Listening to loud music impairs driving performance and increases stress levels. Fast tempos cause drivers to drive even faster. Highly complex music can be distracting, causing riskier driving and a higher pulse rate.
Numerous studies have shown that the volume and tempo of music are more important than the specific type, so an acoustic pop song is more soothing than an up-tempo classical symphony played at a loud volume. But overall, listening to the right kind of music is more relaxing and also safer than driving in silence, or conversation with a passenger. Rather than fearing the journey, you’re enjoying the ride.
So the next time you are feeling anxiety while driving, push that seek button until you find just the right mix of tempo and rhythm, take a deep breath, and enjoy the ride.