Open mind ahead: How driving can benefit your mental health

    Person driving with open mind on an open road
    Published: 10 May 2021. Written by: Georgie Lane-Godfrey.

    While we might not be heading off to the coast just yet, research shows being behind the wheel offers a plethora of health benefits

    Bags packed, seat belt on and playlist pumping – is there anything more exhilarating than the freedom of a road trip? No wonder this year has us all itching to explore as soon as we can. 

    But, the good news is that even though our recent ‘road trips’ have been to the closest supermarket and back, there’s still much to be gained from being in the driver’s seat. ‘The forward-motion of the car – and sense of destination – inclines us to optimism,’ says Lynne Pearce, Professor at Lancaster University and author of Drivetime: Literary Excursions In Automotive Consciousness. And hitting the open road also brings other mental and physical health benefits, too. 

    Thinking space

    Woman sat on car staring into sunset in countryside

    Yoga, running, cleaning, colouring – there are plenty of pastimes we associate with meditative qualities, but it’s time we add driving to that list. ‘Since the advent of the digital age, we spend hours every day checking messages and social media, leaving us little quality time to think,’ says Professor Pearce. Planning a well-deserved road trip for later in the year could be the answer. ‘It’s long been recognised that the modern car is a sort of cocoon in which you can be alone with your thoughts,’ she explains. 

    But as well as giving us mental space, driving forcibly prohibits us from screen time. With studies showing that the blue light emitted by screens is affecting our natural circadian rhythms* – causing long-term sleep problems – there are also physical benefits from switching our phones off and our engines on.

    Leave your worries behind

    As to what we do with that extra mental bandwidth, research suggests we can put it to good use by problem solving. ‘Automotive psychologists have shown that the cognitive demands of driving preoccupy the brain in ways that calm anxieties,’ says Professor Pearce. Without those pesky worries playing on our mind, we’re able to focus more productively on our problems, she explains, giving us the chance to assess – or reassess – where we’re going in life. Think you’d only get that sense of freedom on the motorway? Think again. ‘My research reveals that the real psychological benefits of driving occur when we are driving slowly or cruising at a steady speed,’ she reports. Essential car trips, we’re looking at you.

    Future-proofing

    Older couple driving and laughing

    The psychological benefits of driving aren’t just abstract. For older adults, the effects of keeping behind the wheel can be profound. One study** found that giving up driving almost doubled the risk of depression, and caused reduced cognitive and physical capabilities due to its impact on activity levels and social interaction. Just be sure you renew your licence if you’re over 70 so you can keep on driving. Horizon, here we come…

    If you find yourself driving with kids in the back, you might find you can’t keep an open mind. Here are 5 ways to keep your kids entertained in the car on long road trips.

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