Silence is Golden

Learn how to turn down the volume, tune out the annoyances--and make your life healthier.

November 26, 2010

But for most people, it isn't possible. From cell phones to loud neighbors, noise is so pervasive, it's stressing us out and even making us sick. Learn how to turn down the volume and tune out the annoyances—and make your life healthier and more tranquil.

When I moved from a ground-floor Manhattan apartment to a house in a Florida suburb, I began to call my bedroom my cave. It's nestled in the back corner, butting up against grass, oaks, and firs, and I couldn't get over how silent it was—save for the occasional hooting of an owl or, after a heavy summer rain, a serenade by croaking frogs. I had grown accustomed to a much different nighttime chorus during my two years in the city: screeching brakes, slurred shouts from drunken revelers, and piercing sirens. My new bedroom was so quiet, it was keeping me up at night. So I started turning on the ceiling fan to fill up the silence. The steady hum put me right to sleep.


All this made me realize the extent to which our days are filled with the constant buzz of background noise, whether we live in the city, the suburbs, or the country—from the honking horns of traffic to the droning of the television, radio, and washing machine. Even if you turn off all the obvious noisemakers, the whir of your refrigerator or air conditioner kicks in. The opportunity to experience complete quiet is so fleeting that when you finally encounter it, it feels unnatural. "We are inundated with so much sound that we don't know how to be alone with ourselves anymore," says Arline L. Bronzaft, PhD, an environmental psychologist on the board of the Council on the Environment of New York City who has been studying noise for three decades. "The first thing too many people do when entering their homes is to turn on the television or radio just to have some background sound. They don't spend enough time getting in touch with their feelings, reflecting, imagining, and thinking—all rewarding activities that call for quiet."

No one has measured exactly how much louder our society has become, but in the past 30 years, "there has been an unprecedented growth in noise," says Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization that aims to turn down the volume. Compared with those in the seventies, cars are traveling 175 percent more miles and airliners are flying 273 percent further; we have invented new sources of clamor, such as key chains that trigger cars to honk when they're locked, blaring video games, toys that beep and play music, and leaf blowers that are so earsplitting that their use has been banned in some communities.

Noise now ranks as Americans' number-one neighborhood complaint—higher than crime, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In fact, more than four million Americans are so bothered by the noise in their community that they want to move. Blomberg says the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse gets 150 to 200 calls and e-mails every week, most of them from people who are being driven to distraction.

The never-ending cacophony is taking its toll. Studies link noise (which, fittingly, is derived from the Latin word nausea) to cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal problems, and immune suppression; it's also a major source of sleep disruption, which leads to fatigue, irritability, and decreased job and school performance. Numerous clinical symptoms have been attributed to noise exposure, including nausea, headache, decreased sex drive, anxiety, loss of appetite, hearing loss, and even premature birth and decreased birth weight. The sound doesn't have to be loud to affect us: A study published in October 2000 in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that when women worked in cubicle-style offices with low-level noise, they had elevated levels of epinephrine—a hormonal indicator of stress—in their urine. As former U.S. Surgeon General William H. Stewart once said, "Calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience."

Think of noise pollution as secondhand smoke: Even when you're minding your own business, you're forced to put up with it. Like when you're at a stoplight next to a car with the stereo booming so loudly you can feel the vibrations. Or when you're eating in a restaurant and a stranger's cell phone starts blaring an irritating tune. I can relate. When I'm working in my home office and my two Australian shepherds begin to bark in unison at whatever they spot through the glass front door (a jogger, an armadillo, a lawn mower), I can't even hear myself think. The more they ignore my pleas to be quiet, the more impatient I feel. As this scene repeats itself throughout the day, it becomes clear that the noise is more than a challenge to my concentration; it's messing with my physiology. My heart races, my skin gets hot, and I feel so anxious I want to scream.

There's a good explanation for these physical symptoms and it traces back millions of years to evolutionary survival, says David Simon, MD, cofounder and medical director of the Chopra Center in Carlsbad, California, which specializes in holistic and mind-body medicine. In prehistoric times, if we were sleeping in a tree and suddenly heard a noise, we would need to wake up to keep from being bitten by a snake or eaten by a saber-toothed tiger. Today, we still gear up for danger whenever noises intrude. "The nervous system is wired to raise our heart rate and our blood pressure, increase our breathing, and pump out sweat and stress hormones when there's a perceived threat," Simon says.

Quiet Please
In order to counteract this response, we need to turn down the volume in our lives and rediscover true quiet. People who do this "start noticing sounds that were always there, but they've never heard them before," says Alice Domar, PhD, founder and director of the Mind/Body Center for Women's Health at Boston IVF and author of Self-Nurture. "I have patients who say, 'When I sit down in a quiet room, all of the sudden I can hear my own heartbeat.' It beats all the time. Life is just so noisy that you don't hear it."

A magical feeling accompanies the discovery of a moment so hushed that you might have the opportunity to detect the chirp of a cricket or the singing of a bird. In fact, researchers have discovered that people find the sounds of nature calming. That phenomenon also has an explanation rooted in our evolution. Hearing birds calling and insects buzzing was a sign that our surroundings were safe; only if a predator came on the scene would there be a sudden sound shift. So when you listen to the birds and bugs, you feel relaxed, peaceful.

Inspired, I decided to give the silent treatment a try. I turned off the ceiling fan in my bedroom. The first few nights, it took me five or 10 extra minutes to fall asleep, but I soon began to relish the stillness. So I took the experiment a step further and switched off my cell phone ringer, silenced my car radio, and—finally!—put blinds on my glass front door to hush my barking dogs. Those small changes made me feel much calmer. "Turning off the noise around you gives your brain a chance to rest," Domar says. "If you're constantly listening, you never really relax."

As I carved out times of serenity each day, I felt more at peace. Time even seemed to move a little more slowly. If something was bothering me, instead of letting my mind veg out on the lyrics to the latest song, I silently reflected and worked it through. "In the long run, a quieter life will mean a healthier life," Bronzaft says. "You relax, slow down, and get in touch with your inner being. And that's good for your body, your mind, and your spirit."

Six Easy Ways to Turn Down the Volume
Make your home a haven of tranquility. To absorb sound, place rubber feet (also known as vibration mounts) under major appliances, foam pads under small appliances, rugs on your floors, and drapes on your windows. For recommendations on quiet household products, such as the barely audible Bosch dishwasher and the Whisper Drive garage door opener, go to (the Web site of the Right to Quiet Society, a group that works to promote noise reduction) and click on "Quiet Products."

2. Tune it out. "I can be cuddling with my kids when they're watching Arthur, and if I face the window, look at the trees, and daydream, I don't hear the TV at all. It's amazing how you can shut down the noise that way," Domar says.

3. Create a sense of calm. Studies show that technqiues such as meditation and progressive muscle relaxation, when practiced in a hushed room, elicit the "relaxation response": Your heart rate decreases, your blood pressure lowers, your breathing slows down, and your muscles become less tense. To do it, turn off your radio, television, and computer; close your eyes; and relax your muscles, one by one. Each time you exhale, repeat a word such as calm or quiet. "If you do this for 20 minutes," Domar says, "you can relieve anxiety, headaches, and gastrointestinal problems."

4. Give your brain a break. When noise around you is stressing you out but you have no control over it (airplanes overhead or the roar of traffic), put on headphones and listen to a blank tape (also known as white noise), and then conjure up a little serenity. "As you turn your attention inward, your mind stops racing and worrying," Domar explains.

5. Speak up. If a noisy person is bothering you, say so. Talk to your aerobics instructor about turning down the music in class. Ask your neighbor not to mow his lawn before 9 am. "People have to get in the habit of asking," Bronzaft says. "We're entitled to quiet."

6. Fight for Peace. Contact the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse (888-200-8332 or for help and advice if you'd like to take a noise complaint to your local planning commission, zoning board, or city council.