Effects Of Noise Pollution

Last January, in the middle of a raging snowstorm, I stepped outside among the fat, swirling snowflakes and heard…nothing. No cars, no voices, no barking dogs. The snow that blanketed everything had muted even the tiniest sounds.

A few hours later, this silent world had melted into the spray of tires rushing down a slushy road, the scrape of shovels, and the crunching of snowplows. Real silence is usually very fleeting. Most of us don’t even realize what we’re missing amid the daily noise garbage that litters the air: traffic rumbling by, descending planes roaring overhead, the hum of appliances in the next room. You get used to it.

Effects Of Noise Pollution

But do you really? While your conscious mind might tune out background noise, your subconscious is still very much aware of it. The latest research shows that environmental noise is a pretty serious health threat and has linked it not just to the obvious issues like sleep disturbances and annoyance, but also to stomach problems, impaired immunity, and even heart disease.

Any other health problem of this magnitude would have a government task force searching for solutions. Most likely you don’t consider silence on par with your daily workout or a healthy diet in terms of what it can do for your physical and mental well-being. Researchers and experts disagree: Those increasingly rare moments of quiet have myriad benefits to our bodies and psyches, they say. Here’s how you can begin reclaiming them and reaping the benefits.

Noise Cancelling Headphones

Unless you are able to build a sound proof room in your home, your next best bet is to reduce the noise you can hear. And the easiest way to do that is with noise cancelling headphones. There are two main types of headphones: in-ear and over ear.

I have tried both types and I prefer the over ear to be more comfortable wearing for any length of time. They also tend to have better noise cancellation characteristics due to them completely covering your ears.

Noise Pollution Continues to Increase

“This past decade was the noisiest in the history of the world,” says Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, a nonprofit in Montpelier, Vermont, dedicated to creating quieter communities. Vehicles (one of the biggest noise makers) traveled almost twice as many miles in 2009 as they did in 1980. Cars now honk to signal they’ve been locked, public transportation clanks and clatters, even constant cell-phone chatter raises the volume.

All this unchecked racket is a huge stress on your mind and body. All this noise is like “reaching into someone’s head and shaking the inner workings of their ear.” And, like other stressors, noise can trigger the fight-or-flight response, a combination of nerve and hormonal signals intended to prep you for action. In response, your body pumps out adrenaline and cortisol, and increases heart rate and blood pressure.

The problem, says Rokho Kim, M.D., D.P.H., the WHO scientist who spearheaded the 2011 report, is that when we’re constantly under siege from noise (and these effects have been noted even in subjects who are asleep, he says), our bodies don’t get the downtime they need to recover and are flooded with autonomic nervous and hormonal responses, including increased levels of cortisol, a marker of chronic stress. Over time, this perpetual state of readiness takes a toll. Stress hormones can weaken the immune system, and chronically high blood pressure can ultimately lead to heart disease.

Your brain suffers as well. Research conducted in an office setting found that even a less-than-extreme level of background noise—doors being opened and closed, copy machines, and the conversations of coworkers—reduced worker productivity, increased fatigue, and made it harder to concentrate on tasks.

As the volume of the noise and the length of time you hear it increase, so does your risk. Loud noise (above about 55 decibels or dBA—for reference, the hum of a refrigerator is around 40 dBA; heavy city traffic, 85 dBA) is more stressful than soft, and uncontrollable, intermittent bursts of unexpected noise are worse than when it’s steady. And the less control you have over the sounds, the more stress you feel and the worse the reaction.

Hit the Mute Button

Given these problems, why do we tolerate a startling amount of noise in our lives?

On a more individual level, it can seem practical to want to smother less pleasant noises (lawn mowers, rowdy neighbors) with your preferred ones “People are often paradoxically using more noise as a kind of soundproofing.”

Why not just seek out silence?

What We Can Learn From Buddist Monks

John Prochnik while researching his new book, spent time in some of the quietest places on earth, including sensory deprivation tanks, and he points to a lesson he learned from Trappist monks: “When we don’t have external stimulation, it forces us to look back into ourselves.” And let’s face it: That may be just fine for monks, but for many of us, the thought of that much time alone with our thoughts can be downright scary. We’d rather drown them out.

Still, we could learn a thing or two from the monastic life, and while a vow of silence may not be practical, mini escapes from the chaos are totally doable. Alex Doman, coauthor of Healing at the Speed of Sound, recommends taking two five-to 10-minute “quiet breaks” a day: Close your office door, walk to an isolated park bench, or even sit in a bathroom stall while wearing noise-canceling headphones (no music! Not even a Brahms’ lullaby). This will give your body a rest from noise-induced stress responses and help fend off disease down the road. It also allows your brain time to process all the stimuli it has encountered.

Researchers have also discovered a certain technique that may help buffer you against the harmful effects of constant clamor, a kind of vaccine for the stress of noise you can’t avoid. Called mindfulness meditation (MM), it’s incredibly simple: You sit still and breathe normally but take your body off autopilot and really focus as you inhale and exhale, bringing your mind back to your breath whenever it wanders. Its similar to meditation but much simpler to do.

“Normally, our mind is like an untrained puppy. It kind of goes wherever,” says Catherine Kerr, Ph.D., of Brown University, who led a 2011 study on MM. “What you learn by using mindfulness meditation is to let go of whatever distracting thought or sound has grabbed hold of you and return your attention to your breath. With a few minutes a day of that kind of practice, you should potentially be able to use that skill in a noisy environment,” she says, and more easily let go of an annoying sound’s hold on your attention. Kerr’s subjects were actually able to use the technique to control certain brain waves, which allowed them to tune out distractions more easily at a later time, when they weren’t actively practicing MM.

Maybe even more important than seeking to escape the noise in your life, however, is “intentionally cultivating a more varied experience of sound,” says Prochnik. Instead of subjecting yourself to the nonstop cacophony of modern life, sit under a tree and listen to the birds sing. Try to alternate sound and silence.

-Robert Walsh

Please see my Reviews of Top Rated Noise Cancelling Headphones

Over Ear Headphones:

Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones

Sony MDR10RNC Premium Digital Noise Canceling Headphones

Bose QuietComfort 20i Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones

Sony MDR-NC100D Noise Cancelling Earphone

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About Robert Walsh

I travel internationally on a frequent basis for work and the only way I have found to be able to rest on a plane is by using noise cancelling headphones. I have used quite a few over the years and have reviewed the ones I like best here.