Silence or soothing sounds can help you relax.
By MARY ELLEN PELLEGRINI
There was a time when the sounds of silence, revered in song and by overwrought parents everywhere, were commonplace. Our younger selves didn't always appreciate the lull, be it mandatory quiet time at school or downtime at home. Now, it appears, those unwanted moments may have been more beneficial than we realized.
Research from the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health indicate there are a host of psychological and behavioral effects related to excess noise. Dozens of independent studies looked at noise from traffic, construction equipment, home appliances, cell phones, snow blowers, office machines and other hallmarks of the 21st century. This cacophony, once labeled as merely annoying, has been found to cause sleep disturbance, stress, high blood pressure and increased heart rate.
"There's strong evidence that parts of the brain that analyze hearing have an effect on the whole person in terms of the neural pathways," said Dr. Jeff Wenstrup, professor of neurobiology at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine in Rootstown. The parts of the brain that analyze hearing send information directly to the parts of the brain responsible for emotional expression, he explained. "We understand there's an effect of sounds on us when those sounds have some adverse influence," Wenstrup said. "The next time we hear that sound we have an emotional reaction to it."
The connection between noise and a negative emotional response is complex, said Dr. Jennifer Jordan, director of the Youngstown State University Community Counseling Clinic. "It [noise] isn't something you're always aware of. It probably does affect people, but they're not aware of it affecting them." Jordan said clients may come in for depression or other issues and find noise is compounding the difficulties. "They're getting more aggravated because they don't have any downtime or any peace," she added.
Bothersome clatter is part of daily life, said Jo Carol Shaw-Franklin, director of Child and Adolescent Services for Valley Counseling Services in Warren. "Our society has gotten to the point where there are no boundaries or limits," she continued.
Shaw-Franklin listed cell phones as one contributor to sensory overload. "How do you politely not listen to someone's conversation?," she said. Because we're often unaware of the hearing-emotional connection related to all noise she noted, "It's hard to pinpoint why you're so stressed, why you're wound so tight."
Prolonged noise is very irritating to children who may be autistic or hypersensitive. Startled response to sound is common in veterans coming back from war, part of post-traumatic stress disorder. Constant exposure to noise can cause tiredness, headaches and insomnia, Shaw-Franklin said.
Everyone is different
And yet what constitutes noise pollution for one person may seem normal to another. In settings like hospitals, medical personnel work amidst constant buzzers and bells. Shaw-Franklin, who spends short periods of time in hospitals doing evaluations or checking on patients, finds the climate distracting. "I'm not used to that noise, but the workers are able to carry on their work," she said. "You adapt to noise. It might not be the healthiest way to function, but it's your reality. That doesn't mean that at the end of the day and the end of the week you aren't feeling stressed."
To maintain physical and mental health, it's essential to temper the effect of these noises, Shaw-Franklin said. "You want to find an acoustic place that is comforting or relaxing, and it doesn't necessarily have to be silence. It has to be sounds that generate a positive emotional response," said Wenstrup. These could be waterfall or nature sounds or pleasant music.
Jordan, too, believes soothing sounds are important but said there is also a benefit to silence in our lives. "There does need to be some downtime, some peace and tranquility and time to look at your own thoughts without any disruptions," she said. A big part of counseling is helping people become aware of how things affect them, said Jordan. "If you're exposing yourself to things that raise your blood pressure and get your heart beating fast, that's probably not good all the time," she added.
That downtime is going to be different for everyone according to the experts. To be effective, it must contain some calming components, they said.
Julie Beaumier, a Boardman massage therapist with 10 years' experience, believes massage is one way to find that sense of peace. "Massage is beneficial for your mind, body, circulatory system, immune system, blood pressure. It drains all that stress out of your body," said Beaumier.
Her initial massage practice was located within a hair salon. There, even with her door shut, ringing phones, hairdryers, people laughing and talking generated a constant buzz. "I noticed my clients couldn't relax much in that type of environment," Beaumier said. Since moving to a facility free of noise and outside disturbance, she noticed a change in both herself and her clients.
"When someone is relaxed, their arm and hand are limp. There's a big difference with a quieter environment, and it's better for everybody," Beaumier said. Muscle tension can be connected to the noise around the person. In an atmosphere of silence, clients relax and muscles relax, she added.
As it turns out, silence really may be golden.