Anxiety is all around us, the air noisily electric with it. The environment is filling with noxious sound. And an era stuffed with massacres of the innocents does not induce calm. So it’s instructive to see how one major sense – hearing – affects our ability to rest and self-soothe. And to see how we do it, it’s useful to first look at animals who know us well.
Dogs and Noise
About forty percent of domestic dogs do not adjust well to sudden noise. They cower. They scratch. They rip hinges apart, run into traffic, jump from boats into the sea. To many dogs, noise is really scary. July 4th, with its explosive sounds, is frightening complement to the blasts of foghorns, the sheeting hiss of lightning, the booming claps of thunder.
It’s very hard to get dogs to attenuate their response. A recent article in the New York Times by Jan Hoffman describes how ineffective many treatments have proven. Though sedatives can work, the effects are short lived. Cosseting and comforting canines may make noise anxiety worse.
People are different.
Noise and Sleep
The recent sleep meetings in Denver hosted an important symposium on noise, sleep and health. In keeping with international public health interests, much of the data came from Europe.
Most of us are unaware of how often we wake during the night, just as we are frequently unaware of microsleeps during the day. Typically we need to be fully awake for four minutes or longer in order to even remember being awake. The brief arousals of half a minute or less than the “best” sleepers have 20-25 times a night are rarely recalled. Yet brief arousals have potent effects on our daytime alertness and performance. In studies done from the 1970s to 1990s, young “perfect” sleepers who slept 95-98% of the night, if awakened for very short periods, would get up the next day feeling like they’d been up all night. One major reason major sleep disorders like sleep apnea and periodic leg kicks are so disruptive are the large number of arousals they provoke.
It’s not just that lots of brief, unremembered arousals leave people feeling awful – and performing badly. Frequent awakenings can negate the ability of people to obtain deep sleep, when we make growth hormone, and REM sleep. Wake people up enough – in ways we won’t remember – and deep sleep and REM just don’t happen. Most sleep researchers feel deep sleep and REM sleep are the “interesting” parts of sleep when necessary regeneration of tissues, particularly the brain, take place, even though we cannot live without the light sleep that represents the majority of our slumber.
So noise at night should be a big issue in sleep health. Fortunately, quite unlike dogs, we can turn down our internal attention to the noise of traffic and planes – though only to a point. Go above 60 decibels and things get dicier. Oddly, train noises seem to wake up people far more than airplanes or cars.
Daytime noise is another matter, as there are few public health programs to decrease public noise outside transport hubs. Sadly, some of our lack of interest in leaf blowers and ear shattering motorbikes may be due to increasing national deafness. Earbuds pumping out very loud music may make it easier to do spinning classes, but can eventually kill off the nerve cells that let us hear.
And pervasive noise is definitely unhealthy when we are ill. Hospitals are notoriously noisy places, with ICUs sometimes resembling airport tarmacs. Since sleep is necessary to let the body rebuild, this is a largely unheralded but serious problem. As ill bodies are much less capable of turning off attentional stimuli like noise, the internal anxiety hospital noises create can worsen recovery across the board, even when people are unconscious. The body is always listening.
Noise and Information
Though we can never turn off our ears, we can dramatically decrease our response to noise. The environmental kind, that is.
For there is now a more pervasive form of noise affecting us – the informational kind. The Net and social media bombard us routinely. And not just with clicks, bells and buzzes. The information overload Georg Simmel decried in 1908 has fully arrived. Photographs of friendly dogs, the latest jeremiads of reality TV stars and the incessant pokes of social media fill our days and nights. This kind of noise is harder to turn down. And the more we are “plugged in,” the harder it seems to stop.
So for many of us, an electronic diet becomes a necessity. It is particularly important during our nights. Frequent awakenings by nightly texts and emails can do more than wreck tomorrow’s performance – it can help make you weighty and diabetic, while doing nothing nice for your appearance.
Even if we cannot turn down our neighbor’s steroided car stereos, we can control media noise. Do you really need updates every few minutes? Time rules life. Structuring your time around love and work often means structuring the inflow of electronic information.
There’s lots of noise out there. Learning what you wish to pay attention to – and when – can make for both better days and nights.