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Singing (Loudly) in the Car: The Ultimate Therapy

Self-care is hard for me. I’ve truly been working on it a lot these past few months, but it’s still a challenge. It’s like when you want to write but don’t, want to read but don’t, want to cook a good meal but don’t. You know the things that are good for you, yet finding the energy to do them still proves difficult. Earlier this year, I struggled to even remember those things I enjoyed, let alone do them.  

I know a lot of people who like to go for a drive alone to de-stress. This has never appealed to me, as driving has always been a “let’s get from point A to point B” task, not an actual activity (unless it was with a cute boy and you were watching a sunset, of course). Plus, driving with others for fun was never my ideal situation either, because if I had my way on aux, it’d be Broadway and Disney and Frank Sinatra, so my taste in music never won out. 

But more recently, I’ve found that maybe driving can be more than just transportation for me. After a car-totaling accident, I was lucky to upgrade to a newer, bigger car, and the whole thing made me feel very adult. Suddenly, driving became way more enjoyable – my AC functions smashingly, the car smells new, the wheel still has a crisp grip, there’s Apple CarPlay, the works. With just a few hundred miles and a whole country to explore, I set out on a solo road trip this summer with me and my new baby. 

Singing as self-care

Okaaay so lots of alone time in the car. But luckily, Olivia Rodrigo’s album had just dropped, and no company meant any music I wanted. I started to realize that anytime I’ve been sad, starting to sing has always cheered me up. I’ve always been able to carry a tune, and did theatre and choir in high school, but I was never going to be record-producing or Grammy-award-winning. I think the notion about not doing something because you weren’t the best at it got to me for a while, and once I got to college, I found myself singing less and less. Something my roommate said to me long ago has always stuck with me. She can’t really hit the notes, nor does she have the most pleasing voice, but she owns it and says “at least I do it with passion.” It’s true – she is not good at singing, but it doesn’t stop her because she has fun doing it. On the other hand, I can sing but still shy away at times. I think being “average” at something is one of the tougher places to be. I can’t own it like my roommate, knowing I’m bad but doing it anyway. But I also can’t excel at it, either. That’s a weird middle ground to find yourself in. Plus, for the past few years I’ve always had roommates, and Broadway shower belting and jazz-while-making-dinner playlists became a little harder with almost-constant company around.

So where to find solace? The car. The place where you can put on any music for any mood and feel no embarrassment (until you’re at a red light and you catch the car next to you looking at you while you’re attempting to hit that show tune high note…). Sometimes I forget that just going for a drive is even an option when I’m bored, sad, or need a change of scenery. So often I feel like I need somewhere to go to get in my car, when sometimes seeing where the road and music takes you is a fantastic form of self-care.

The science

After realizing that singing usually dried up any tears, cleared any worrying thoughts, or just made me smile a little more, I decided to do some surface-level research on why I felt better after singing. 

Professor Sarah Wilson from the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne shares some meaningful insights about singing. Wilson shared the following with ABC: “As well as activating a range of networks associated with movement, listening, planning, memory, and language, singing triggers the release of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine.” Aerobic exercises release endorphins, and while singing might not be running on a treadmill, it still counts. There is a physical exertion in the body by filling our lungs, controlling our vocal chords, and moving our mouth and body.

person holding white printer paper, mental health
Sydney Sims

Music in general is powerful (but we all know that). According to Slate, “music lowers cortisol, a chemical that signals levels of stress. Studies have found that people who listened to music before surgery were more relaxed and needed less anesthesia, and afterward they got by with smaller amounts of pain medication.” Singing also exercises the lungs, potentially leading to a “stronger diaphragm and stimulation of circulation due to the greater amount of oxygen needed.” Breathing techniques used when singing have benefitted people with conditions like asthma, cancer, and cystic fibrosis. People with Alzheimer’s report improved memory recollection, and people with autism, Parkinson’s, and a stutter have reported improved speaking abilities, too. 

And good news for my roommate and any of you who can’t quite hit the right notes. A 2005 study found that singers experienced the same benefits even when “the sound produced by the vocal instrument is of mediocre quality.” 

I didn’t want to basically recite an entire article, but this piece from Sarah Keating and BBC has some fantastic neurological explanations to dive into.  

Get your favorite playlist up, hop in the car, and start singing!

Maeve is in her last year as a Leeds School of Business student and as a Her Campus writer (sad). When she's not singing Disney show tunes while her roommates aren't home, she can be found thinking about the cold brew she had with breakfast, humming the Hamilton soundtrack, and thinking about Captain America.
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