Central Park is one of the few peaceful outdoor places in New York, but it’s not quiet. Since moving to the Upper East Side, where my husband, Kumar, was completing his medical residency, I’d started experiencing anxiety, depression and small panic attacks in response to the construction, traffic, industrial and other chronic noise. All I wanted was to free myself from the polluted soundscape for a while and quiet my anxiety. Instead, every morning, I swallowed the bad feelings and kept walking.
The depression and anxiety weren’t new; like most of my family members, I’ve experienced symptoms of mental illness since I was a teenager. But these conditions exploded in the absence of a quiet environment where I could reset my nervous system. I’d lived in major urban areas for most of my adult life, but this was the first city I inhabited where nature was inaccessible. To head upstate, you need money and weekends off, of which we had neither. So, instead, I sequestered myself inside our one-bedroom apartment, self-treating my racing pulse, cold sweats and bouts of crying with alcohol and Xanax.
Later, I discovered that these types of physiological and psychological reactions to noise pollution weren’t proof of my insanity. Yes, I was perhaps more sensitive to noise than others, but the violent pounding of a jackhammer or the screech of a subway car can make any hearing person cringe. In fact, studies show that, like secondhand smoke, prolonged exposure to noise pollution can cause an array of health issues, from an increased risk of heart disease to poor sleep and worsened mental health. Humans aren’t the only ones suffering, either. Chronic unnatural noise has caused documented harm to wildlife, even leading to the depletion of certain species of birds, fish and other animals.
It’s difficult to escape noise. But for me, relief arrived in the form of a move to Milwaukee for Kumar’s gastroenterology fellowship in spring 2018. Our access to nature increased exponentially; I could stroll through a local park without being startled by the air brakes of a tour bus. Yet, I realized I needed a better strategy for dealing with my negative reactions to noise, especially since our neighborhood near the hospital still suffered from the sounds of rumbling motorcycles, downshifting trucks, airplanes flying overhead and the hiss of steam from factories along the river.
A few months after the move, I began researching how to alleviate stress in a noisy environment. The most common recommendation? Give your body what it’s craving: nature. And if that’s not possible, do the next best thing and listen to the recorded sounds of your favorite natural landscapes.
This advice is supported by several recent studies. A 2017 study demonstrated how exposure to natural sounds can significantly calm one’s nervous system. By measuring participants’ heart rates and brain activity, researchers found that listening to these types of recordings induced a restful state. Artificial noise, on the other hand, caused participants to experience an “inward-directed focus of attention” — a mental state often seen in cases of anxiety and depression.
Taking a cue from what I read online, I streamed nature sounds for several hours every day. Chickadees serenaded my morning workouts. I wrote to the sound of water flowing over river stones. And when I felt overwhelmed by construction or traffic noise, I matched my inhales and exhales to a recording of wind whispering through trees.
Initially, I played these sounds on YouTube. This eight-hour video with more than 28 million views was my favorite. A few weeks into this self-guided therapy, I upgraded to using free sound apps on my phone, as well as the website mynoise.net. This not only afforded me better audio output, but also let me customize the sounds. (For instance, when playing the soundscape “Primeval Forest,” I’m able to silence the distracting call of a cuckoo bird.)
The result? Most of the time, the recordings prevented me from assuming the fetal position on the rug or reaching for a bottle of Milwaukee craft beer. My overstimulated fight-or-flight response also decreased for the rest of the day, well after I turned off the white noise of rain. When I listened to the recordings, I didn’t just feel more relaxed; I threw mini tennis balls for my dogs in the backyard, adopted the hobby of baking bread and gushed to Kumar about my day before he could even change out of his scrubs after work.
There may be a reason for this. In 2014, researchers from Penn State found that natural soundscapes can improve listeners’ moods after just a brief period of exposure. Participants whose temperaments were negatively affected from watching an unsettling video experienced quick recoveries when the audio feed was switched to something authentic and human-free — meaning the disturbing clamor that progress has created has also given us the technology to mask it.
Earlier this month, I walked to Lake Michigan with the dogs and listened to the cold waves break against rocks and concrete revetments sheltering the city. The wind and water silenced the whoosh of traffic on Lincoln Memorial Drive, and I thought about how, for all those years, I inadvertently pushed my body to the brink. Back then, it felt as if sound had solidified into something sharp-edged and heavy — a weapon.
Now, I view noise pollution as existing within a quota system. A small amount of noise is fine, or even exciting. Think of wandering through Times Square as a child or dancing to loud music at a bar. But afterward, some of us may just need to return to the sounds of the countryside, or ocean or forest, to prevent our minds from hitting the panic button.
As the world grows louder, I at least have one reprieve. In lieu of quiet, unadulterated nature, I can put on headphones and hit “play.”
Paige Towers is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee.
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