For many people, driving can elicit a significant amount of stress. We dread the daily traffic we endure on our commutes, eagerly anticipating the moment we finally get home and can step out of our cars once and for all. 

Although driving can be stressful, especially if you live in an urban area with lots of traffic congestion, under the right circumstances it can actually reduce stress. In fact, one recent study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles, found that motorcycle riding can have the same stress relief benefits as going to the gym.  

“Stress, whether good or bad, when driving has to do with perspective,” said Will Heckman, executive director for the American Institute of Stress (AIS) and an avid motorcyclist. “As with most stress, it’s all in your state of mind. Being a biker has helped me immensely when it comes to reducing stress.”

Below, you’ll find five reasons why going for a leisurely drive can help you manage your stress levels — and advice about doing it safely. 

You’ll have alone time to clear your mind. Sometimes, when the pressures of work and the overall stressors of life become unbearable, the best cure is some alone time. This is especially true if you live in a densely populated area, where it feels like you can never be by yourself. Research shows solitude can have countless benefits when it comes to our mental health. If you live in a large city like Houston (which is the fourth-largest in the country), owning a car might be a hefty expense (especially with insurance here averaging $234 monthly). But it can provide a means of escape that is more private and less stressful than public transportation. 

It’s the perfect setting for practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is a form of meditation in which we focus on our surroundings and the present moment in order to be better attuned with our thoughts and emotions, and, in turn, feel more relaxed. It’s best achieved in a quiet, solo setting, which a car can provide. 

If possible, take time while driving to practice mindfulness. It can take many forms, from intentional breathing to practicing gratitude. 

If you’re particularly stressed, a change of scenery can be beneficial. When we’re going through an acute stressful moment, simply changing our environment can often be helpful. 

Heckman said driving can be especially stress-relieving if your workplace causes you tension. 

“If work is one of your main stresses, then driving away from the location gives you literal and figurative space between you and the problem,” he said. “In the literal sense, you can physically depart from the problem.”  

You won’t be tempted to spend time on your smartphone. Unfortunately, our smartphones can be prime culprits for stress. Many of us obsessively check our email, feeling an ever-growing need to respond to family, friends and co-workers immediately. That, coupled with the negative effects of social media on our mental health, mean that a little time without our eyes glued to our screens could be a good thing. 

Take time on your leisurely drives to break away from your smartphone and instead focus on the sights, sounds and sensations around you. 

Research shows that listening to music while driving can be relaxing. Whether it’s your favorite “Chill Tunes” playlist on Spotify or a storytelling podcast you love, we all have something that’s our go-to play when we need to relax, and driving is the perfect opportunity to take advantage of it. In fact, one study published in the journal Ergonomics found that listening to music while driving successfully maintained the mood of participants. In addition, the respiration rate was lower for those who listened to music versus those who didn’t, indicating a more relaxed state.

Regardless of how you de-stress, practice safety first

As we explored above, driving can be a great way to de-stress. But that doesn’t mean you should be so relaxed that you’re not alert behind the wheel. Keep your eyes open for the following signs that you might be too zoned out: 

  • There’s a difference between being relaxed and being sleepy. If you feel yourself zoning out or nodding off behind the wheel, pull over and take a break. If you ever find yourself wondering, “Whoa; where did the last 30 seconds go?” then it’s probably time to get off the road. 
  • Reducing stress behind the wheel is best practiced in calm driving conditions. If you have a commute that’s full of traffic or you’re driving through a major city, a construction zone or in inclement weather, consider tabling the mindfulness or relaxation — this is best practiced when there aren’t many distractions on the road. 
  • Avoid reaching for your phone too much. Although you might have a relaxing podcast you love or a new playlist that soothes you, reaching for your phone too much to change a song or episode can be dangerous. Turn on whatever you’re listening to before you begin driving and let it play until you reach your destination.