I grew up in the suburbs of Maryland. I was blessed to grow up right outside Washington DC - in fact my upbringing was that which you would think one would be growing up right outside of our nation’s capital. From 1st - 12th grade, I went to Sidwell Friends which is the current and former school of Chelsea Clinton, the Obama Daughters, Joe Biden’s grandchildren and even President Roosevelt and Richard Nixon’s children attended my alma mater. I preferred the city over home, for me I found my small town in Maryland to be too quiet. I go home about once a month to visit my parents and I often find it hard to sleep because the silence is deafening - I am so used to the city sounds of my now home, New York City. Turns out however, my affinity to the city may not be so good for my health. Noise pollution and city sounds are serious stressors that are harmful to human health.
To Understand What Stress Actually Is, You Must Know What Cortisol Is: Cortisol, How Our Body Deals With Stress
A part of several processes in the body, cortisol is a hormone that for one plays a role in how we respond to stress. Rooted from our beginnings as hunter-gatherers, “cortisol is released in response to fear or stress”, explains an article from Psychology Today, “your body becomes mobilized and ready for action”. For example, if you saw a bear, you would internally release cortisol in order to muster a quick response to either fight it or flee from it.
Long Lasting, High Levels of Cortisol in the Body Can Be Extremely Harmful to Our Well Being
For early humans, stressful stimuli were acute and relatively rare compared to today. Most notably, after we encountered danger and subsequently released cortisol within, our response to fight or flee lowered levels of cortisol in the body thereafter.
Nowadays, we hardly encounter bears - distress is, “a looming work deadline, or.. a persistent worry about losing a job”. Stressors like, ”traffic jams, work pressure, and family difficulties...are not life-threatening”, they are benign and ever present (Harvard).
Further if you get a stressful email, although cortisol is activated to release, your response is not to physically fight or flee, it is to continue sitting at your desk with the most physical activity done being the movement of your fingers to eagerly respond. This lack of physical activity is notable as it is the fight or flight response that allows for cortisol to diminish in the body. Our being exposed to stressful situations with no physical release via flight or fight, encourages only the accumulation of cortisol in the body. An article in Psychology Today explains, “distress, or free-floating anxiety, doesn't provide an outlet for the cortisol and causes the fight-or-flight mechanism to backfire. Ironically, our own biology — which was designed to insure our survival as hunters and gatherers — is sabotaging our bodies and minds in a sedentary digital age”. (Psychology Today)
Long lasting, high levels of cortisol in the body can be extremely harmful to our well being.
Effects of Chronic Stress and High Levels of Cortisol in the Body
I don’t have to explain it, the below list of what chronic stress and accumulated high levels of cortisol can do to the body sucks (Dartmouth).
High blood pressure
High blood sugar
Metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes
Increase weight gain | Fat deposits on the face, neck, and belly
Diminished sex drive
Lower Immune Function
Interference with learning and memory
Increased risk for depression and mental illness
Destruction of brain structure and connectivity
Lower life expectancy
Noise, Believe It Or Not Is Stressful
Like work pressure, an impending deadline, family struggles or a bear, noise is a stressor. The body in response to auditory disturbance releases cortisol - fine if noises are rare, like the clap of thunder, a tree crashing in the forest or the roar of a lion - in our hunter-gatherer years, loud noises most often meant life threatening danger and required swift action and so we evolved to react most acutely to those sharp sounds through the hormonally backed response of fight or flight.
Fast forward to New York City, 2018, it is safe to say there is unwanted noise almost always. Even if you are in a smaller city, suburb or rural town, modern life has allowed for people speaking loudly on their phones in public, car horns, loud cell phone rings, lawn mowers, your roommate walking heavily around the apartment at 3am, frequent stimuli that activate the release of stress hormones to deal. We are constantly releasing cortisol and unless you engage in fight, flight or some sort of physical activity, it only accumulates to spur harm within the body.
Think you’re used to the noise and it doesn’t affect you, think again; “Even if you think you’ve adapted to noise—say, you barely notice the train rumbling by your home these days—you’re mistaken. One study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, for example, found that clerical workers in a noisy room...had elevated stress hormone levels, compared to those in a quiet room—but they didn’t feel particularly stressed. ‘Adaptation is always at a cost,’ [psychologist Arline Bronzaft] says. ‘dealing with the sounds of the city... is costly to your body’” (Harper's Bazaar). Whether you notice the unwarranted noises around you or not, they are still working to initiate an internal stress response regardless - over the long term this can be detrimental.
Countering Chronic Stress: How to Deal with All of This!!
The stress of being a human in modern life can be taxing on the body as it is chronic and we often don’t allow for a release. Enjoy below some tips and tricks on how to lower stress in your body, with a special section on how to combat noisy stressors.
Tips and Tricks To Specifically Deal with Stress From Noise
1) Infinity Float NYC: Sensory Deprivation Tanks and Floating
Floating and especially sensory deprivation tanks reduce levels of cortisol in the body because sensory input is all, if not nearly blocked; “the sensory deprivation afforded by flotation helps the body calm itself and restore equilibrium. When you float, your mind can relax since it isn’t processing much sensory input. Floating in Epsom salt also replenishes magnesium levels in the body, which encourages serotonin production. Serotonin elevates your mood and helps reduce stress and anxiety levels” (Northwest Float Center).
I recently visited Infinity Float in New York City for a session in a sensory deprivation tank. I cannot recommend a visit more highly, I am going to try and visit at least once a month.
2) Go For a Walk In The Woods
Oooooo “the virtues of walking in untamed environments”! There is science to support that a walk in the woods lowers stress levels. An Atlantic article that detailed research from Stanford explains, “exposure to nature has been shown repeatedly to reduce stress and boost well-being” (The Atlantic). Especially if you live in a bustling city like New York City, perhaps make it a habit to escape town for quieter pastures from time to time.
3) Get a White Noise Machine
Here’s how white noise works: “White noise works by reducing the difference between background sounds and “peak” sound, like a door slamming, giving you a better chance to sleep through it undisturbed. If you have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, creating constant ambient sound could help mask activity form inside and outside the house” (Sleep Foundation)
Tips and Tricks To Deal with Stress In General
4) Engage in Active Relaxation: Do Yoga or Meditate
My very first article was on the benefits of doing yoga! From a Harvard health article, Dr. Herbert Benson in his studies of chronic stress suggests the inclusion of “deep abdominal breathing, focus on a soothing word (such as peace or calm), visualization of tranquil scenes, repetitive prayer, yoga, and tai chi” (Harvard).
When it comes to meditation, there are actual meditation studios you can visit now. My studio of choice is Inscape in downtown New York. They offer classes and also have an app you can download.
5) Physical Activity
“People can use exercise to stifle the buildup of stress in several ways. Exercise, such as taking a brisk walk shortly after feeling stressed, not only deepens breathing but also helps relieve muscle tension” (Harvard).
6) A Little Help From Your Friends
“Confidants, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, relatives, spouses, and companions all provide a life-enhancing social net — and may increase longevity. It's not clear why, but the buffering theory holds that people who enjoy close relationships with family and friends receive emotional support that indirectly helps to sustain them at times of chronic stress and crisis” (Harvard).
"Lack of sleep increases stress hormones. Get your eight hours no matter what. Take a nap if you missed sleep. Prioritize it, and if you feel like you're not getting high-quality shut-eye, find strategies to improve it" (Mind Body Green)
"Take a multivitamin and nutrients to help balance the stress response, such as vitamin C; the B-complex vitamins, including B6 and B5 or pantothenic acid; zinc; and most important, magnesium, the relaxation mineral". (Mind Body Green)
9) Positive Thoughts
"Looking at situations more positively, seeing problems as opportunities and refuting negative thoughts are all important aspects of staying positive and trying to minimize your stress. In some people, stress can be caused by their attempts to handle things perfectly. Setting more realistic expectations and positively reframing the way you look at stressful situations can make life more manageable. Also, difficult circumstances have a way of working out; it is important to keep challenges in perspective and do what you can reasonably do to move forward" (APA).
10) Put Your Phone Away
Let alone the surprise noises that come from it, our phones are a gateway to a world where stressful stimuli is most likely to lay. Put your phone away for a couple of hours and take a breather.