Noise. It’s everywhere and when it’s so pervasive, we stop hearing it.
As a child, our family lived on a busy main road. We never heard the traffic, but my friends coming round for a sleepover would complain bitterly how they couldn’t sleep a wink because of the constant roar of cars and lorries passing by.
Later while living in SW London under one of Heathrow’s busiest flight paths, we became immune to the sound of planes passing overhead.
Noise was everywhere and then suddenly it stopped.
In 2020 we experienced a momentary global break in all that noise. Did you hear it too?
That wonderful sound of silence. No cars. No planes. No machinery.
And for that short period of time, when out walking, I became highly attuned to all the other sounds I had been missing out on because of all the noise, like,
- The sound of the birds in the trees.
- The sound of the waves crashing onto the beach a kilometer away.
- The rustle of the wind and the crackle of twigs and leaves underfoot when walking in local bushland.
Those sounds had always been there but had been blotted out as the level of background noise continued to rise. Add in the growing use of headphones or ear pods to listen to music or podcasts when you’re out and about and you become at risk of what Kurt Fristrup, senior scientist, and the US National Park Service calls, “learned deafness.”
“There is a real danger, both of loss of auditory acuity, where we are exposed to noise for so long that we stop listening, but also a loss of listening habits, where we lose the ability to engage with the environment the way we were built to,”
Fristrup and his team have been monitoring noise levels in 90 national parks across the U.S. comparing them to urban areas.
Worryingly their findings predict that,
“Noise pollution is increasing faster than the US population and is expected to double over the next 30 years.”
There are two main reasons why this matters.
1. Noise is a stressor.
There’s a reason why we block our ears as we walk past noisy jackhammers, drills, chainsaws, and car alarms. It’s unpleasant, exhausting and makes it harder to think or to get heard if you’re having a conversation.
We think we’ve stopped hearing the noise because we’ve grown accustomed to it, but the stressful effect is still being felt by your brain.
Chronic noise is annoying! It becomes like that prickle under your skin, you just can’t get rid of and once you’ve become sensitised to it, it’s as if your brain is actively seeking it out, so you end up even more annoyed and irritated.
By contrast natural sounds – think trickling water, the patter of rain on the roof, the ribbets of frogs, and birdsong, are stress reducing and calming.
If you’re missing out on those more natural sounds because of environmental noise or using headphones, it becomes harder to find the peace and quiet needed to recover from stressful events.
Worse still we stop listening out for them.
2. Noise can lead to noise-induced hearing loss.
It’s not just ageing rockers who go deaf. Workers exposed to noise pollution in their work environments of 85 decibels or more risk deafness and stress related health problems including high blood pressure, increased risk of heart disease, sleep disturbance and premature death.
In addition, children growing up in noisy environments have been found to exhibit higher levels of stress, impaired memory, attention and learning ability.
Should you care?
I would say yes. We evolved to use our senses to gather information and understand our world. While vision may be the sense we rely on the most, your ability to hear and distinguish sounds enables you to pick up the subtle changes in a person’s tone of voice or to distinguish the different instruments being played in an orchestra.
Noise pollution is now being taken more seriously around the world because of the recognised detrimental effects on health and circadian rhythms.
In 2018 the World Health Organisation identified that more than 100 million people were exposed to harmful levels of environmental noise and published guidelines for noise pollution in Europe.
In 2022 a United Nations report listed noise pollution as a top environmental and health threat.
While a recent report by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee in the UK examined the scientific evidence currently available, and noted how green social prescribing using exposure to natural light and sounds plays a role in enhancing a positive psychological impact.
Their recommendation being to continue researching the evidence and mechanisms by which noise pollution harms health and to map out and model how noise pollution can be effectively regulated.
It’s all a step in the right direction, but you don’t need to wait for government legislation to do something to improve your own listening skills to benefit from natural sounds.
The easiest way to do this is to practice.
It doesn’t cost you anything other than your time, but the benefit of feeling less stressed and enjoying more of your life is surely priceless.
- Try taking yourself out of a noisy environment to a green (or blue space) for 10-20 minutes. Create the time if needed! Gently close your eyes and tune in to what you can hear. See if you can identify the source of different sounds and notice how they make you feel. By making this a regular practice you’ll find it easy to start distinguishing different birdsong and other sounds.
- Go for a mindful walk in a local park or sit on a park bench where you won’t be disturbed. Sitting quietly in this manner has been shown to lower blood pressure and feelings of stress. Quiet listening is soothing.
- If water is more your scene, spending time alongside a riverbank, on a beach or cliff top overlooking the ocean can also provide a wide variety of different natural sounds for you to enjoy.
If it’s time to change your soundscape, what’s your favourite natural sound?
Jenny is a Board-Certified Lifestyle Medicine Physician, Workplace Wellbeing Specialist, speaker, trainer, author, and coach. Her latest book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.
If you’re looking for someone to speak at your event or assist your business, department or team develop a high level of mental wellbeing, let’s set up a time to talk.