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Noise and Stress – How Environmental Noise Levels Can Spike Your Stress Load

Feeling stressed but not sure what’s causing your distress?

Could the background noise you live with day in and day out – that noise you think you’ve learned to ignore – be contributing to your overall stress levels? If you’re subjected to regular moderate to loud noise levels, then the answer is probably yes.

Consider the following research studies which illustrate just how noise levels affect our physiological functioning in ways we’re scarcely conscious of.

Research Demonstrating How Noise Contributes to Stress Levels

New Airport Leads to Stressed-Out Kids

Using the opening of a new international airport to model a noise experiment, Cornell University researchers measured physiological stress indicators and other quality of life measures among a sample of 9 to 11 year old children in the period prior to the opening of an international airport and again after its inauguration.

The Results

Among study subjects, resting blood pressure and overnight stress hormone levels (epinephrine and norepinephrine) rose and quality of life indices fell after the opening of the new airport and a corresponding increase in environmental noise levels.1

In another major airport noise study out of Munich Germany, researchers found that the opening of a new airport caused reading and memory scores to decline among children living in the noise affected area. Children living near a newly closed airport, by contrast, demonstrated improved reading and memory performance.2

Low Level Office Noise Increases Stress and Decreases Performance

Cornell University researchers say that even low noise levels – like those found in typical open plan office environments, can lead to elevated stress and performance deficits.

For their study, the researchers assigned a group of office workers to one of two environments for a three hour work period: a quiet environment or an environment with noise levels typical of open plan offices.

After the three hours were up, the researchers measured urine stress-hormone levels and asked each subject to attempt to solve an unsolvable puzzle.

The Results

Subjects from the ‘noisy’ group had elevated urine levels of the stress hormone norepinephrine

Subjects from the ‘noisy’ group made fewer attempts at solving the unsolvable puzzle before giving up (a test of task motivation)

The researchers conclude that even moderate office noise levels have an adverse effect on stress levels and worker motivation.3

Noisy Wards Make for Stressed Nurses

Researchers at John Hopkins School of Medicine wanted to know how noise might affect stress levels among nursing staff in a hospital pediatric ward. To find out, they monitored a team of nurses, constantly measuring for noise level and heart rate and measuring for perceived stress and annoyance levels every half an hour throughout a shift.

The Results

Nurses experienced tachycardia (elevated heart rate) as noise levels rose. Higher noise levels were also associated with higher self reports of stress and annoyance levels.

Echo in the Classroom Affects Peer to Peer and Teacher Student Relationships

German researchers found that elementary children learning in classrooms with poor acoustics (more echo) performed worse on measures of speech perception and verbal memory than children who learned in classrooms with better acoustics.

Interestingly, poor classroom acoustics affected more than just learning – children in classrooms with greater echo also rated their teachers and peers less positively than students in classrooms with better acoustics. The way the room influenced sound altered the way the students evaluated the people around them.4

Reducing Noise to Reduce Stress

You can’t eliminate unwanted noise from your life but making a few small changes may help you to eliminate at least some.

Noise stressing you out? Try:

  • Blocking traffic and street noise by switching to double or triple paned windows or through the use of noise muffling/blocking curtains. If possible, you may also try sleeping or working in a room which faces onto a quieter street or area.
  • Add insulation and weather striping
  • Plant trees, bushes and hedges around your yard – particularly between your house or office and a source of consistent noise – the noise muffling impact of a thick hedge can be dramatic.
  • Thicker carpets or drapery like wall hangings (as well as curtains, again) will do a lot to muffle sound which passes through floors or walls.
  • Put your ringtone on vibrate only, whenever possible
  • Try white noise machines or noise cancelling headphones
  • Hold off on running the dishwasher or laundry machine until you’ll be leaving the house. Also, try not to rest noisy vibrating appliances next to dividing walls
  • Turn off that background TV or radio, unless you’re paying attention, it’s just noise pollution
  • Make sure to buy quieter appliances when replacing your existing machines
  • Move home or work spaces. This is a pretty dramatic step but if you can’t get rid of what’s causing you stress, you need to consider how much your stress is affecting your health

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