Imagine waking up to the sounds of birds singing, or the sound of your children laughing from the living room. Now imagine waking up to a jackhammer outside your window. Feel different? Absolutely. Sound is constantly affecting our mood and how we feel, whether we notice it or not. And while some sounds, like a breeze gently blowing through the trees, are a welcome addition to our lives, others, like car horns blaring from rush-hour traffic, are disturbances. These noisy disturbances contribute to what is called noise pollution, and unbeknownst to many, it can gravely affect our health and well-being. Knowing how to identify and combat noise pollution not only saves our hearing but may also help lower our daily stress levels and stress-related health consequences.
So what is noise pollution? Simply put, it’s any excessive or disruptive noise that upsets the balance of human and animal life. The biggest culprits are machines and transportation (cars, trucks, subways, traffic, car alarms, airplanes, trains, and construction), along with noise from nighttime revelry, loud music, lawn mowers, etc. While these sounds are generally annoying to hear, the effects they have on our lives go much further than that, affecting our emotional and physical health.
Loud and frequent noise is difficult to be around; it makes us agitated, unable to concentrate, and frustrated, and can even bring about anxiety or anger. These short-term effects can turn into long-term physical problems. When the body is stressed, we go into a “fight or flight” mode, an emergency state where the body reserves most of its energy and blood for the brain and muscles. Blood vessels narrow, heart rate rises, and numerous hormones get released into the system to help alleviate what the body is experiencing as a threat. Certainly helpful when we’re in danger, but living in a state of frequent high stress can lead to high blood pressure, heart problems, anxiety, sleep disorders, depression, exhaustion, and an overall poor quality of life. Aside from this, long-term exposure to loud noise also damages tiny hairs (called cilia) located in the inner ear and causes irreversible hearing loss.
How can we best deal with noise pollution and guard ourselves from its negative impacts? Start by noticing the various levels of noise that you encounter in your day. How does it make you feel and how does this affect your day? By being more aware of how sound affects you and your daily life, you can then make choices toward a healthier sound environment.
- Find silence, create silence. Give yourself and your ears a break by finding places throughout your day that offer respite from the many noises of the city. Libraries, museums, a bench by the river, meditation class, and quiet cafés can all help you add some peace and quiet into your day. Create your own silence by wearing earplugs during your commute and by soundproofing your apartment. Soundproofing squares, found at Home Depot, can be put on walls and even the bottom half of windows (light still shines in through the top!) and will greatly improve the sound environment of your home.
- Get into nature! Our bodies and nervous systems are soothed by spending time outside among grass, trees, fresh air, and animals, so find ways to incorporate these elements into your daily life. Try walking through a park on your way to work, and if no park is near, simply take a slower street that is less trafficked and listen for the sounds of nature around you. If you live in a city, day and weekend trips to the country are an easy and inexpensive way to immerse yourself in the outdoors, whether it’s through hiking and kayaking or just exploring a new town.
- Check in with yourself. Notice whether your own actions are contributing to the noise pollution around you, and make choices to be more mindful of our sound impact on one another. Lower the volume on your iPod, turn down the TV late at night, don’t honk your horn as much, check in with how loud you’re speaking. Noise pollution won’t improve overnight, but making small positive choices in our actions will help create a quieter world.