When was the last time you sat in real, honest silence? How did you react to that feeling? for many of us, the feeling of silence is rather unnerving- there is always sound even if we don’t fully focus our attention on it, but we notice when there is no sound at all.
Our brains filter out what we do and don’t need to know, and take information about our surroundings passively. We know about the size of a space and the number of people in it based on the little sounds we hear, without having to listen to a single word. We can form a pretty accurate picture of what is happening out of sight as we take in the soundscape. This is great in theory, but our worlds are so very loud, the stream of noise we hear is pretty much a constant cacophony, and we have gotten used to it without even noticing. From the moment we wake up, we’re welcomed by cars or construction outside, to the blaring of our alarms.
Sound body and mind
You might not know this, but people’s auditory processing actually has a watchman setting that listens around you as you sleep, to keep you safe when you are preoccupied and unconscious. Because of this, even when you wake up feeling refreshed and well-rested, studies have found that your physical health may still suffer, as your mind might wake up when exposed to outside noise, but not enough for you to remember. The result is that even as you rest, you do not receive the vital healing benefits that come from the deeper stages of the sleep cycle, which can have negative effects on your health over time.
Approximately 35% of British people report difficulties getting to sleep on at least a weekly basis, with one in five reporting difficulties getting to sleep every night. Studies have found that if a sleep schedule is consistently interrupted, it can have a myriad of different negative side effects. Even when participants had 10 Hour recovery nights, it was not enough to reverse the negative effects of consistent poor sleep. This can include the development of mood disorders and depression, as well as having a significant impact on our personal relationships.
Loud and sudden noises give you a shot of cortisol, the stress hormone. Fine in small amounts, but long term can cause cardiovascular issues, high blood pressure, and anxiety.
Increased likelihood of cardiovascular issues- the risk increase itself is quite small, but because noise is so constant and hard to avoid, it means that these levels cannot be ignored.
One of the big ones we all hear about is that using headphones and listening to loud music can cause deafness. I heard this a lot as a kid, and it’s unfortunately true. Studies have found that a significant number of teenagers have some hearing damage as a result of high noise input. The age that these symptoms are appearing is getting younger, which is a rather worrying prospect.
Many people suffer from tinnitus or the occasional ringing sound in their ears. This can be caused by loud noise and consistent damage, and in some cases can be permanent. Although this can seem normal, I know many people with mild tinnitus, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned by how many of us block out these sounds in unhealthy ways, such as using headphones loudly or for long periods.
Sometimes loud spaces simply cannot be avoided. For those of us that work in busy public areas, it can actually have a significant adverse effect on our productivity levels. Studies have found that workers are actually ⅓ as productive in an open plan office, because of the higher levels of disruptive sound.
What can we do?
Three minutes of silence, and if that’s not possible, aim for making a quiet space instead. Taking a moment out of your busy day can help your body to reset from the high-stress levels of constantly filtering our noises and people. If you have trouble switching off, this may be a great way to improve this.
Many religious practices have listening at their heart- contemplation and living in the moment is important for our physical and mental wellbeing. We need to get back into the habit of focusing on and appreciating silence. When we are met with silence, we may not know what to do with it. We may put on some music, or talk to others. These are not inherently bad choices, but we also need to learn to appreciate silence for what it is from time to time. Even a few minutes of deliberate quiet can be extremely good for our mental health, and can help with both focus and motivation.
If you prefer, you can replace harmful noise with better ones- what counts as good noise? Wind, water and birdsong. Natural noises can help us to feel calm, and tap into instinctual physiological reactions we all have. Birdsong is something our ancestors learned to associate with safety because birds will go quiet when danger is spotted. Knowing this, we can begin to replace the loud and unwanted noises with deliberate and healthier sounds, so we avoid the negative side effects of high stress and low-quality rest.
You can also try to bring the mediocre “white noise” to the front of your subconscious, and let yourself experience and focus on that. The sound of the kettle boiling is a good example of this, as it’s a big part of many people’s daily routine that can be focused on to ground us. Keeping an ear on how much-unwanted noise you are receiving can be a good way to avoid becoming overwhelmed or burnt out without realising, so you can step away or take measures to regulate what sounds you are exposed to.And there you have it- keeping an ear out can be tricky to pick up at first, but being able to