We are constantly inundated with loud, intrusive sounds. Car alarms blaring in the middle of the night. Babies wailing on planes. Techno beats thumping through restaurants. The noises are never-ending.
Most of us have learned how to tune out these sounds, losing ourselves in our Facebook feed as we walk down the street or popping in our headphones during our morning commutes. We know how to cope with the sensory overload of our world and we’ve found creative outlets for cultivating peace of mind. But are these outlets really combating all the clatter? Or are they just white noise—making us believe we’ve escaped the sound when it’s actually continuing to blare?
It turns out that even when we’ve managed to ignore the noises of our world, our brain is still taking it all in—and it’s wreaking havoc on our health. Loud, unpleasant sounds, such as sirens, honking, and shouts, rev up our sympathetic nervous system. When this happens, our muscles contract, our heart rate increases, our digestive system begins to shut down, and our bodies ultimately prepare to fight the unpleasant stimulus or flee the scene. This fight-or-flight response was once evolutionarily adaptive because it helped us escape environmental threats and avoid death. But now that death is no longer an immediate threat in our civilized world (and we don’t need to run for our lives every time we hear a honking car or a plane taking off) we need to find ways to tell our outdated cognitive hardware that we’re okay. Otherwise, our bodies will continue to unnecessarily activate our sympathetic nervous system when we hear abrasive sounds, and we’ll develop chronic stress and disease.
There are fortunately many ways to deal with the noises of our world and prevent our sympathetic nervous systems from going into overdrive. Here are just a few:
Certain headphones can help us promote calm and deactivate the sympathetic nervous system. Binaural beats, for instance, use dichotomous frequencies to alter your brainwaves and ultimately relax your mind. The effects can be remarkable, and people who use this technology report feeling tremendous calm. Similarly, Dr. Alfred Tomatis’s method has been shown to reduce sympathetic nervous system activation and alleviate stress. Using the higher frequencies of Mozart and Gregorian chants, Dr. Tomatis’s method helps people deactivate their sympathetic nervous system and reduce the symptoms of ADHD and depression.
Meditation is a great tool for combating the stress of sounds. Certain types of meditation, such as mindfulness meditation, have been found to increase grey matter in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that becomes activated when we expose ourselves to loud or stressful noises. By practicing meditation on a regular basis, we can train our amygdala to operate less reactively and keep our sympathetic nervous system from being triggered by the smallest of scares.
Although we can’t always curate our environment or chose where we get to go, we can be more intentional about what we expose ourselves to. For instance, if you have the option to dine at a loud, raging restaurant or at a peaceful, smaller place, you should probably opt for the quiet spot. Eating in a relaxing environment is healthiest because loud, stressful restaurants activate our sympathetic nervous system, which in turn shuts down our digestive system. So if you’re struggling with digestion issues, or if you just want to reduce your anxiety, this might be a handy trick for you.
Integrative medicine expert Dr. Andrew Weil recommends stepping into nature in order to escape stress-inducing sounds. When we live in cities, we become overexposed to noise—loud, stressful noise. But when we get into nature, we remove ourselves from the cacophony of city clatter and reconnect with nature sounds (which, Dr. Weil attests, are more complex and healing). Nature sounds activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes the entire body and is correlated with good health. So getting into nature can help you relax your mind and ultimately, cultivate better health.