Driving while stressed? Here’s a surefire way to calm down behind the wheel

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Driving is stressful – more than it’s ever been, in fact. Our new study found that eight in 10 (82%) of drivers reported having an episode of either aggressive driving (deliberate unsafe behaviors, like not using a blinker, tailgating, or weaving between lanes) or road rage (extreme aggressive driving, like making obscene gestures, sideswiping, or purposefully ramming into another car) over the past year. 

Not every drive includes an episode of road rage, of course, but many people say that their stress levels spike when they’re behind the wheel. Thirty-five percent of survey respondents said that driving made them feel more frustrated than they usually do. So what can drivers do to stay cool during their commutes? 

We asked survey participants what they do to alleviate stress, and one solution emerged head and shoulders (and ears?) above the rest: Music.

A whopping 62% of people said that when driving jangled their nerves, the fastest road to relaxation was turning on some tunes. (Coming in second and third were thinking about something else, at 23%, and yelling or cursing, with 22%. Hey, whatever works.)

Listening to music has been repeatedly proven to lower stress levels. Research has shown it can reduce levels of stress hormones, lessen pain, and improve cardiovascular health. And, a recent study confirmed that tuning in is helpful behind the wheel specifically; it found that the heart health of relatively inexperienced (and perhaps nervous) drivers was measurably better when they played soothing music.

The key word there? “Soothing.” One needs to listen to the right music; while hair metal might be relaxing for some, experts note that just any old playlist won’t do. 

The aforementioned “some”

Because, as we all know, music’s great at eliciting emotional responses – some more hyped up than others – so it stands to reason that Enya may not incite the same leadfootedness as Eminem.

Car karaoke taken to the extreme

There’s also such a thing as getting too relaxed while driving. Experts found a song that was so effective at reducing anxiety that they actually advised against listening to it while driving. (Save this one for your insomnia-curing playlist.)

So, the big answer is “music,” but the more specific solution is finding the music that makes you, personally, feel better. Spend some time figuring out which songs, artists, and genres make you feel most at ease. If belting showtunes is your thing, we hope Andrew Lloyd Webber is your copilot. And if rap mellows you out, may Cardi B rule your car’s airwaves.

Of course, this probably goes without saying, but cranking up the stereo isn’t a panacea. If someone else’s driving has you so jangled that you can’t relax by simply putting on a favorite playlist, many survey respondents – and experts, too – recommend ignoring drivers whose behavior’s putting you on edge, taking a different route, or just pulling over for a moment.

Family band practice is *not* a stress reliever

Want some tunes that could do the trick for less frustrated driving? Here’s a playlist of songs that might fit the bill. But, hey, maybe Eddie Money and friends are more your stress-reducing speed. 

Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

The Zebra’s chill driving mix

Want to read our full report on road rage and aggressive driving? Check it out here. (We’ve got stats about common aggressive driving behaviors, how drivers engage in them, and how they observe them – as well as advice from both survey respondents and experts on how to cope.)

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