Our world today is noisier than it’s ever been, from the emergency sirens and car horns careening through your average city street to the constant hum of your trendy open office. Then there’s the surround-sound movies, the extra-loud concerts, the coffee shop filled with people on their phones (not to mention the endless alerts coming through them). City living and our news-obsessed, 24-hour culture are a big culprit, but in our digital era, even those living in less concentrated areas still have plenty of annoying noise to deal with—and most of it is self-inflicted.
There are real, and serious, implications to all this racket: Too much noise raises cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure. It can contribute to memory loss and insomnia. It raises our collective anxiety levels. It depletes our creativity, impedes productivity, and hinders good decision-making. One recent study even found that noise pollution is the second biggest threat, after air pollution, to public health, linked to diseases that include cancer, heart disease, and depression. The CDC estimates that ten million people in the U.S. suffer from noise-related hearing loss.
Meanwhile, studies have shown that silence can regenerate brain cells. In fact, even a few minutes a day of quiet can help regulate your cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure.
Silence, though—who has time for that?
Indeed, culturally, we’re very much living in a proud moment of anti-silence, where millions are finding their voices, and using them, often for the first time. Trump’s election ignited a new era of mobilization that has since manifested in million-women marches, a takedown of hundreds of workplace sexual offenders, and, most recently, a generation of students refusing to play the role of victims and instead using the Parkland shooting to encourage real change. Silence, in this way, has become a political issue: If we’re silent, we’re victims. If we’re not shouting, we’re not engaged.
All of which begs the question: If noise is so destructive, what does all of our collective shouting—even well-intentioned—mean for our health?
While silence is necessary for survival, the good news is that there’s real value in speaking your mind. Studies show that civic participation can offer significant improvements to your health. For one thing, in states with higher rates of volunteering, people live longer and have fewer cases of heart disease. A 2007 study looking at women over 50 who took part in an activist group, titled, “Is Raging Good for Your Health?” found that, indeed, it is. Involvement in advocacy led to an enhanced “ethic of self-care,” sense of purpose, and depth of social connections , all of which have been linked to healthy aging. Advocacy also reduces the risk of dementia and other cognitive impairments. What’s more, devoting yourself to a cause often requires learning to stick to challenging habits and imagining long-term outcomes—similar to mindsets needed to enact good physical health.
But balance is key. While it may seem counterintuitive to use your voice less—especially when there’s so much to “rage” against—there are times, even in moments of uprising, that silence may be our most powerful tool. Too much noise, after all, whether it’s in the form of your neighbor’s booming sound system or your own political rants, can prevent us from being present; from hearing one another, and ourselves. And hearing one another is what imparts change. It’s not to say don’t speak up, but rather to recognize that taking a break from the constant engagement can also be beneficial.
There are a few easy ways to do this, without missing out or feeling, well, silenced. Limiting your personal media intake—even being just a bit more deliberate about the news you consume—can leave you feeling more in control, and better equipped to handle, the news coming at you. Instead of seven news sources a day, how about experiment and see if two is enough? And don’t just put down your phone every once in a while, but actually turn it off. (A 2016 study found that people look at their phones between 47 and 82 times a day.)
Then go for a walk. Perhaps meditate. Studies show that meditation and controlled breathing—even for just a few minutes a day—can help calm the brain, lower stress, and decrease anxiety and depression. And the more civically engaged you are, the more help you likely need in the “decreasing anxiety” department. So keep using your voice; just also keep in mind there’s significant value in knowing when to give it a moment, or two, of rest.