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Today's Family Magazine

Balancing Noise Pollution with Nature

By Sandi Schwartz
Have you ever been sitting outside trying to enjoy some relaxing quiet time when a loud and grating noise like an airplane or leaf blower destroys your peace?  Noise pollution can really ruin a moment.
The problem with noise pollution
Noise pollution is considered a serious concern throughout the world. The World Health Organization ranks it as the second most critical environmental challenge after air pollution because excessive noise can seriously harm human health and interfere with people’s daily activities.  It can disturb sleep, cause cardiovascular and other physiological effects, reduce performance, and lead to changes in social behavior.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, noise pollution is unwanted or disturbing sound that either interferes with normal activities such as sleeping, working, reading, or having a conversation, or disrupts or diminishes one’s quality of life.  Distracting noises can come from construction sites, traffic, machinery, sirens, crowds, blasting music, aircraft, fireworks, and more.

Noise affects our bodies in the following ways:
Physiological.  Sudden jarring noises cause the body to produce cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone that makes us feel stressed and anxious.  Some studies show how chronic exposure to levels of sound greater than 50 to 55 decibels can boost stress hormones and increase blood pressure, hypertension, and heart rate.

Sounds can change our mood. Constant or loud noises can shift our mood from happy and calm to stressed and irritated.  When we are surrounded by these intrusive noises all the time, the impact can add up and crush our spirit.

The brain has a huge storage space, but the amount of noise that it can process is relatively limited.  When we are bombarded by noises, it can impact our ability to focus and think clearly.  Research shows that children studying in schools under flight paths have reading skills several months behind their peers in quieter places.

Behavior.  Loud noises can lead to changes in how we act.  We tend to move away from sounds that we do not like or that feel uncomfortable to us.  In an experiment at a shopping center, speakers playing loud pop music were set up at one end of a store and calm, ambient music was played at the other end of the store.  The results showed that many shoppers physically moved away from the pop music speakers. Sound, therefore, can impact decisions that we make in our lives.

Benefits of nature sounds
There is no doubt that certain sounds are more calming than others, although it’s only been proven by science pretty recently.  A group of researchers in England discovered that nature sounds physically alter the connections in our brain, reducing our body’s natural flight-flight-freeze instinct.

Nature sounds like birdsong, wind, rain, and flowing water also help mask intrusive noises like airplanes flying overhead, leaf blowers, and construction sites, and undo the stress we feel from listening to them.

In the book, “Your Brain on Nature,” authors Eva M. Selhub and Alan C. Logan highlight research in offices and hospitals that show how nature sounds help lower stress. In another study, the nervous system of adults who were exposed to sounds from both nature and noisy environments recovered faster after listening to nature.  Yes, listening to calming nature sounds can help boost our physical health, too.

Interestingly enough, not all nature sounds have the same soothing effect.  The best sounds are those that provide a sense of natural space and mimic the biorhythms of an ecosystem like a forest.  Loud screeching and croaking are just not going to result in the same calming feelings as sounds of water, for example.
Prevent intrusive noise from ruining the moment
So, how can you and your family still connect to nature even with all this distracting noise? Keep in mind that you can experience soothing nature sounds both indoors and outdoors. It’s all about being mindful and making some adjustments so you can enjoy all the amazing benefits of nature sounds.
  • Invest in some nature meditation CDs and apps (there are also plenty of free apps and CDs at your local library). Try out a few different types to see which you prefer. Some have music along with nature sounds, while others are just the natural sounds like a rainstorm or crackling fire. I love the White Noise app because you can choose more than one nature sound at a time and try out different combinations.

  • Record your own nature sounds. Take along a recording device during your next hike or trip to the beach. Capture those relaxing sounds to play again later whenever you want.

  • Install a small indoor water fountain. One of the local spas by my home has a relaxation room with the most soothing waterfall on a rock-covered wall.

  • Keep your home and backyard free from excessive noise, and show your family that you take time out of your busy day for quiet moments, such as listening to nature sounds.

  • Go for nature walks to peacefully enjoy the beauty around you. Challenge yourself and loved ones to stay quiet so you can all listen mindfully to the natural sounds, such as the rustling of leaves and chirping birds.

  • Carefully choose where you spend your time, especially if you are trying to unwind. Look for vacation spots and outdoor areas that don’t attract a ton of visitors and are far enough from the road that you won’t hear the hum of the traffic.

  • Create a quiet zone in your home or find a sit spot outside where you can go to enjoy some silence or calming nature sounds.

  • Reach for some ear plugs or noise-reducing headphones when the noise is really bothering you. Or, even better, pop in your earbuds and tune into some nature sounds.