We are living in stressful times. In a world of rampant economic and social challenges, where millions of people are unhappy in their jobs and relationships, it seems like everyone is constantly stressed out from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to bed. And it’s taking a dramatic toll on our health; when we don’t relax regularly, our blood pressure goes up, it becomes harder for us to focus at work, and our sleep is more fitful. All of this makes us more stressed, trapping us in an extremely vicious stress cycle.
This attack on our health has dangerous implications. When we feel stressed or tired, our immune system weakens, which makes it harder to focus. According to a 2014 report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, over one-in-five fatal car crashes involve driver fatigue!
The solutions to our stress problem are as varied and complex as we are, but one promising solution is simple, accessible just about anywhere at any time, and completely free: Relaxing sounds.
The Benefits of Relaxing Sounds
Listening to calming music or nature sounds has been shown to decrease stress, increase productivity, and help people achieve deeper, more restful sleep. Even just a few minutes of relaxing sounds can have a noticeable effect on our mood for the day.
Researchers at Brighton and Sussex Medical School in England found that listening to gentle natural sounds cause a decrease in the body’s sympathetic response (the “fight-or-flight” response) and an increase in the body’s parasympathetic response (the “rest-and-digest” response). People with higher levels of stress experienced an even greater relaxation response than those with lower stress levels.
Slow, relaxing music has a similar effect. According to the National Sleep Foundation, older adults who listened to 45 minutes of calm music before bed fall asleep faster, sleep better and longer, and wake up less often during the night.
There are a few reasons why relaxing sounds are so good for us. Natural sounds, like falling rain, can act as white noise, masking other, less-pleasant ambient noise while you’re working or sleeping. Our bodies are built to react quickly to sudden bursts of noise; even noises as low as 40 decibels (the volume of a close whisper) can startle people out of sleep if they’re sudden. Conversely, noises as loud as 70 decibels (the volume of a shout) can go completely ignored if they are gradual, like a passing helicopter.
The sound of a gentle rainstorm, however, both masks unpleasant and unfamiliar sounds and serve as relaxing, familiar white noise to our brains. The fewer threats we perceive, the more relaxed we feel.
Adding Relaxing Sounds to Your Routine
The easiest way to access natural sounds is to get out into nature! Taking walks around the park or hiking through the woods is a great way to escape the ruckus of our modern world. Directly engaging with Mother Nature has also shown to be beneficial to our health. Plus, walking is great exercise, which will relax you even more!
For times when getting outside is not possible, however, there are plenty of digital options to choose from. Music streaming services like Spotify and Pandora have massive libraries of relaxing nature sounds, ambient tones, and relaxing music. YouTube also has videos with relaxing scenes that can be very pleasant to watch or have running in the background.
If you’re looking for a more customizable experience, MyNoise.net is a library of hundreds of natural and artificial sound generators, each with ten customizable sliders to help you achieve exactly the right tone and volume you’re looking for. It also has a calibration feature to help you tune generators to compensate for your sound equipment and hearing loss. MyNoise is completely free to use.
Finally, consider investing in a white noise machine for your home or office. They can be useful when running a sound generator from your computer would be impractical. No two white noise machines are alike, so be sure to do careful research. Different sounds work for different people; you wouldn’t want a white noise machine with nothing but sounds you don’t like!