Toxic Noise Is Driving Us All Crazy: What We Can Do to Create a "Sound" Recovery Environment

John McManamy Health Guide
  • I have posted numerous times on the healing power of sound and music (one example here), but I have neglected to highlight the enormous risks to our mental health when sound goes bad. 


    We live in a noise-polluted world that seems to serve no other purpose than to drive us crazy. And with our vulnerable brains, we seem to reach that threshold far quicker then the rest of the population. Fortunately, there are counter-measures we can take, but we have to be extremely mindful and diligent. 


    What set off my alarm bells was yesterday’s latest TED Talk. This was delivered by Julian Treasure, who describes himself as a sound consultant, apparently a very rare breed. Next thing, I was viewing all five of his TED Talks.

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    According to Mr Treasure, we are losing our ability to listen. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the overwhelming majority of us have no basic communication skills in the first place. If we lack the focus to stay engaged in a conversation, we are certainly not going to be attuned to what is going on around us.


    On a typical day, we all venture into the environment from hell. As if normal talking and listening is not difficult enough, have you actually tried to carry on a conversation in your average coffee shop? Think of all the levels of noise you have to contend with. It’s a wonder you can hear yourself think.


    Actually, thinking is a major challenge. According to Mr Treasure, in an open plan office, worker productivity drops by a whopping two-thirds.


    We have city planning, Mr Treasure tells us. What we don’t have is sound city planning. Architects design buildings to appeal visually, not aurally. Business proprietors put no thought into the interior infernal rackets they create and what this does to their employees and customers.


    The result is that we are constantly assaulted. This came though loud and clear (puns intended) at a NAMI convention I attended three years ago. The venue was a downtown Chicago hotel. The setting was claustrophobic - narrow hallways, crowds of people pouring in from everywhere. Noise was coming at us from every direction - background clatter, human herds, flatscreen monitors, piped in music.


    There was no getting away from it. There were no quiet spaces to retreat to. I couldn’t even go into any of the rest rooms to do my business in peace. 


    This was a mental health conference, mind you, and the place was driving us all crazy. It wasn’t just me. Other people were remarking on this.   


    As I am recalling this, an earlier NAMI conference comes to mind. This took place in a San Diego hotel that was laid out more like a resort - ground level, wide spaces, outdoor terraces and patios. There was no assault to the senses. We had plenty of quiet spaces to retreat to. This was a happy conference. The attendees spontaneously remarked how much they were enjoying themselves.


    Researchers have observed how those with schizophrenia have difficulty in failing to tune out background noise. I have also heard this complaint come up in bipolar support groups. In one sense, mental illness can be defined as a failure to cope with the sensory overload we are constantly exposed to.


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    A further twist: A lot of us with bipolar test high for introversion and being “highly sensitive.” Talk about a cruel double-and-triple-whammy. 


    Our brains work way too hard trying to tune out all the racket. We get exhausted. We get stressed. Our fight-or-flight response may get activated. We lose sleep. We snap.


    If we are able, we need to plan our lives so that we avoid noisy situations. One person’s fun night out at a casino is bound to be personal hell for many of us. Same with trips to the mall or social gatherings. You should not be made to feel as if you are the one who has to fit in. Don’t be afraid to assert yourself and bolt for the door.  


    Mr Treasure strongly recommends large doses of quiet time. Establishing a sound-friendly home environment is a must. We need to put a lot of thought into this. This is especially true for me, as I work from home. There is no TV going, no radio, no distracting and mindless blah-blah-blah. I work in peace and quiet, I recover from work in piece and quiet.


    Mr Treasure cautions about the use of earbuds and headphones. Yes, we may have to use them to tune out the distractions around us. But we often wind up damaging our ears, as a result. Opt for high quality sets that you can play at lower volumes.


    Also - earbuds and headphones create a sense of disconnect. Our eyes see one thing, our ears hear another. You may not be able to avoid this, but spare a thought for what this may be doing to your brain. 


    As for things you can be doing for yourself: As well as developing a deep appreciation of the sound of silence, Mr Treasure is big on ambient sound. The reason birdsong may be so appealing to us, for instance, is that you only hear birds singing (at least cheerfully) when there is no danger lurking. Two million years of evolution, apparently, have wired our brains, in response, to hit the relax button.


    Mr Treasure also recommends a lot of the things I have focussed on in my posts here at HealthCentral: Listening to good music, playing a musical instrument, singing, performing music with other people, drum circles, sound therapy.


    Finally, we need to cultivate good listening skills. Otherwise, we are just mindlessly hearing, and that’s not good.


    Take home message: We need to pay close attention to how sound affects our mental health. We need to do everything we can to limit the toxic noises of our modern world, both inside and outside our homes. We need to find our quiet times, we need to incorporate healing sounds in our recovery, and we need to cultivate good listening.


    Does that sound right to you?

Published On: June 28, 2014