Ask five people what causes them to experience stress, and it’s likely that workplace frustrations, financial difficulties, personal relationships, or jam-packed daily schedules top the list. But there’s another, more subtle cause of stress that can be easily overlooked but is surprisingly impactful—environmental noise.
“Noise” can refer to any undesired sound—which distinguishes it from, say, the sound of a loved one’s voice, falling rain, or bird song—and it’s a fixed feature of urban life. Although hearing loss is often associated with prolonged exposure to loud noises, exposure to “noise pollution,” even at relatively low decibels, can pose a significant health risk. And those of us living in dense urban areas are inundated.
From the noises of cars, trains, or aircraft, to hours of TV programming, music, or podcasts, to the incessant dinging and ringing of cellphones that are never more than an arm’s length away, it may seem impossible for the typical urbanite to find a few moment’s quiet. It’s worth trying though, since doing so can carry significant health benefits.
A recent study of the effect of road traffic noise on the cognitive development of 2,680 children in Barcelona schools found that higher exposure to road noise at school was associated with slower cognitive development, affecting working memory and the ability to pay attention—both essential tools for effective learning.
Many other studies have produced similar results. One, titled “Noise pollution: a modern plague,” published in the Southern Medical Association Journal in 2007, summarized its findings by stating: “The potential health effects of noise pollution are numerous, pervasive, persistent, and medically and socially significant. Noise produces direct and cumulative adverse effects that impair health and that degrade residential, social, working, and learning environments.”
Since our sense of hearing is never turned “off,” we are always monitoring ambient sounds for signs of danger, even while asleep. Hearing alarming sounds while sleeping can lead to sleep disturbance, which in turn can also increase stress levels and negatively affect health and well-being.
And, surprisingly, exposure to environmental “noise stress” evokes the body’s stress response, potentially leading to serious physical health issues over time, including cardiovascular diseases.
According to Dr. Wolfgang Babisch, a lead researcher in the field of environmental noise, in a presentation made to the Acoustical Society of America in May 2015, “The evidence is increasing that ambient noise levels below hearing damaging intensities are associated with the occurrence of metabolic disorders (Type 2 diabetes), high blood pressure (hypertension), coronary heart diseases (including myocardial infarction), and stroke.”
While the problem may be pressing all around us, the solution is also refreshingly simple—seek out some intentional quiet.
While exposure to environmental noise has been found to raise levels of the stress hormone cortisol, the opposite is also true. Time spent in silence can boost cognitive functioning and can even reduce cortisol levels. A 2006 study showed that two minutes spent in silence lowered blood pressure and heart rates even more than time spent listening to “relaxing” music.
And the touted mental and physiological benefits of “nature therapy” or “forest bathing” are certainly linked, in part at least, to the fact that these natural spaces invite us to leave the noise of industrial life behind and embrace the quiet.
If getting away for a walk in the forest, a quiet weekend camping, or a silent retreat isn’t a possibility any time soon, there are still easy ways to incorporate a little more stress-relieving silence in our day-to-day routines, if we’re intentional about it.
In the sanctuary of our own homes, we can make the choice to turn off the TV and silence our cellphones (or leave them in another room) for a time. Some of the time spent in our vehicles could be quiet and radio-free. And in noisy households where spouses and kids add to the decibels, taking a little time at the beginning or end of each day to wake up or unwind in silence can have a positive impact.
“Silence is golden” no longer just applies to biting our tongues at times. It may make a difference to our psychological and physical health, too.