Noise pollution is a real phenomonon, with real effects -- here's how to address it.
Last weekend, I traveled to Austin for work. Rather than make the stressful drive down I-35, I took my dad’s suggestion and hopped on the train in Ft. Worth. I knew it would take longer and leave me without the freedom of a vehicle once I got to Austin, but it was cheaper, more pleasant, and would allow me to get some work done on the way.
The train is a double-decker with an observation car, which has floor-to ceiling windows and chairs facing the passing landscape. It was pretty cool to settle back and work while watching the Texas miles pass by, and it was definitely more scenic than the concrete-and-construction hellscape of 35. But it was also loud. There were lots of people in a single car, some of them in groups playing card games or having raucous conversations. After a while I pulled out headphones and tried to drown out the din with music, but as the train rolled on and the idyllic scenery passed by in contrast to the blaring music and the chatter and laughter, I could feel the stress I’d been trying to evade build up.
Finally I packed up my laptop, grabbed my stuff, and moved back to the next car. It was just a typical train car — dramatic windows offering spectacular views of the sunset. Just reclining seats, curtained windows, scattered passengers, and blessed, blissful silence. I chose a seat toward the back and sank gratefully into the cushions, planning to get back to work. But instead, I just sat there and looked out the small window. Eventually I realized I wasn’t going to work anymore, so I put away my bag, silenced my phone, pulled out my pillow, and spent the rest of the trip dozing. By the time we neared Austin I was awake, but more peaceful and relaxed than I’d been in days — so much so that the conductor’s arrival announcement was so loud and jarring that I jerked violently and my heart started pounding.
That weird moment of panic took a long time to subside … much longer than I thought it should. I was still edgy and nervous when the Uber driver dropped me at the hotel in Round Rock a half-hour later, and it took me a while to calm down enough to sleep. The next day, I connected the dots and realized that it wasn’t the noise that caused such a disproportionate reaction — it was the unfamiliar, nearly foreign silence beforehand. That silence had lulled me into a much-neglected state of rest which my brain, used to constant conversation, pings, rings, alerts, and cries of “Mom!,” was almost certainly desperate for. According to Medium, the scoffed-at notion of “noise pollution” isn’t just an excuse your neighbors use to call the police when they don’t like your music — it’s an actual thing that’s making us sick:
Our brain’s always-on auditory system was designed to operate in natural environments — not in cacophonous cities and suburbs. There’s increasing evidence that ambient-noise exposure can contribute to metabolic disorders like Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke, Babisch says. There’s also evidence linking noise-related annoyance to poorer mental health.
How can noise do damage? Loud or unpredictable sounds can activate the body’s sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and trigger an increase in stress-related hormones like epinephrine and cortisol, Babisch says. Over time, this sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activation and its accompanying stress-hormone spikes can lead to increases in blood sugar, blood pressure, and blood viscosity, which in turn can contribute to health problems.
I don’t know about you, but the connection between unpredictable sounds and SNS activation is both unsurprising and unsettling. Of course we all know from experience that loud and unpredictable sounds create a rush of adrenaline — anyone who’s ever heard a child scream or a car backfire or the sudden clap of thunder knows that feeling. But this article isn’t talking about both — it’s talking about either one. So the relatively minor jolts of alarm or annoyance that tend to accompany every alert from our phones, for example, aren’t a fleeting sensation — they’re a physical response that builds up over time. Ditto with car horns, incessant music, sirens, and the ever-present clamor of TV … they all take a toll on us, in one way or another.
It’s interesting that I had such an extreme reaction to noise only after I experienced the unfamiliarity of silence. I’ve gotten out of the habit of seeking out silence every day — things have been too busy, too crazy, for such a luxury. But even so, there are ways to mitigate the tumult, like not turning on the radio when I take the kids to school or drive to work. Like keeping my phone on silent, keeping the TV off, and unplugging Alexa before my kids get home from school.
It seems almost silly, doing these little things to minimize constant sound. But those times when I hear my text message alert go off three times in a minute, I have to force myself to unclench my jaw and relax my shoulders. Multiply that by the thousand or so waking minutes in a day, give or take, and it doesn’t seem that silly at all — actually, it seems pretty smart.
And who knows? Maybe a few days of minimizing noise will help me relax enough to realize that things are never too busy or too crazy to find a few minutes of silence in which to pray or meditate. Because skipping out on silence is one of the things that makes life feel too busy in the first place.