We need stress reduction now more than ever. Studies show traffic is lighter due to pandemic shutdowns, but that doesn’t mean your mind isn’t still racing. Making changes to your car and the way you drive won’t fix what’s weighing you down, but it can help you reduce stress while driving. From vehicle aspects like tire size, soundproof panels, and luxury scent therapy, to personal choices like music and posture, here is why having a quiet cabin is such an important element in reducing stress while driving, leaving your mind free to focus on the road ahead.
Reduce Noise Coming Into the Cabin
If you’re in the market for a new vehicle, one with a quiet cabin should be near the top of the list. Too much undesired sound – whether from the engine, ventilation, construction, road imperfections, or weather – stimulates our amygdala (an area of the brain that reacts to perceived danger), contributing to the release of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine, says the Hearing Health Foundation. Noise also contributes to headaches and fatigue, and can greatly exacerbate ear disorders like tinnitus, all of which make it trickier to concentrate.
You don’t have to shell out for a Mercedes-Benz S-Class or Lexus LS 600h (both known to be extremely quiet rides) to get a hushed cabin. There are many other aspects to consider: station wagons and hatchbacks are said to be noisier than sedans because of the sound resonance at the back, for example. Larger vehicles like SUVs and trucks may have less sculpted bodies and, therefore, more wind resistance, which creates more noise.
Performance-oriented vehicles are bound to have louder engines and exhaust as well as stiffer suspensions. Softer suspensions will lessen the vibration of the road entering the cabin, which makes for a smoother and quieter ride. Narrower, thicker tires will also help reduce road noise, but off-road tires are going to drone a lot on the highway.
Pay attention to the type of windows (laminated is typically quieter) and how well-isolated the doors are. Make sure to test drive a new car in the city and on the highway so you can gauge the noise levels in both situations.
If you’re not in the market for a new ride, there are aftermarket products that can help dampen or deaden sound that are installed in the floors, doors, firewall, and roof. You may feel more comfortable hiring an expert to do things like take off door panels for installation, but much of it falls in the DIY category. (Bonus, some of these products also offer thermal insulation, keeping you cool in the summer and warm in the winter.)
Bringing in the Right Kind of Sound
Too much noise may hinder your ability to focus, but adding the right kind of music (at a healthy volume) can help. “When you listen, there are so many parts of the brain that are being stimulated,” says Dorothy Davies, a music therapist in York Region, Ont. One part is where emotions get memories associated with them. “So music – maybe a major chord or minor chord, a fast or slow tempo – can affect our mood.”
An upbeat and faster tempo and rhythm will help us feel more energetic, while slower is often calmer. More openness (space between notes) also creates a sense of calm, explains Davies. If you’ve had a tiring day, maybe choose something faster, upbeat, in a major chord. “Drums help keep you alert and convey energy,” Davies says. If you’ve had a stressful day or are feeling anxious, you’ll want to opt for slower music with a more open sound.
Is one type of music better than another? That’s a personal choice. “Common music elements will evoke a similar reaction. But it can be individualized by our memory,” Davies says. “Normally people gravitate toward familiar music, something associated with positive memory, comfort, and nostalgia.”
Proper Breathing and Stress Reduction
Keeping the brain and nervous system calm improves our ability to cope with possibly stressful driving situations. “We want to stay within our window of capacity,” says Jennifer Snowdon, Buteyko therapeutic breathing educator and yoga teacher based in Moncton, N.B. “We are better able to make decisions and take in new information without feeling overwhelmed.”
An accessible and cost-free way to alter our nervous system is through deep breathing. Strive to optimally use the diaphragm (a large muscle located under our lungs) which stimulates the vagus nerve running up our spine and tells our brain that everything is okay. This is a practice often used in yoga.
Another way to do that is through posture. “Stay upright,” Snowdon instructs. “There are so many ways to adjust the chair. Make sure your spine is long and your head is back.” When we hunch, we decrease the diaphragm’s ability to move, meaning we breathe into our chest instead of our belly. “Chest breathing signals to the nervous system to increase anxiety,” she says. So don’t be afraid to use all those buttons and levers and get your chair setting just right.
Snowdon also encourages nose breathing. “Close your mouth,” she says. Nitric oxide, a vasodilator (meaning it widens blood vessels), is released in the nasal airways and helps our blood flow more easily, Snowdon explains, thus delivering oxygen and the feel-good calming hormones throughout our body.
With that in mind, you may be tempted to belt out your favourites, but Snowdon, encourages humming. “We tend to turn on the music and sing along, but that increases mouth breathing.” Singing is great for us, but humming will help reduce stress. “It’s a happy medium,” Snowdon says.
There Are Many Ways to Create a Soothing Atmosphere
We all have go-to self-soothing techniques. Perhaps a mug of herbal tea or hot chocolate is just the ticket. Insulated travel mugs are popular and reliable, but these days you also have the option of a plug-in or rechargeable mug or cup warmer to keep your drink extra toasty. If you find your mind wandering, chewing gum or a little dab of peppermint oil behind the ears may help keep you alert.
Whatever path you take to find your inner calm, a lighter mental load will help you stay focused on the road ahead.