Decibel Hell: The Effects of Living in a Noisy World

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 10 seconds. 

I recently visited Manhattan for three days. As I arrived and exited the cab onto West 58th Street, the noise level that greeted me was excrutiating. The abrupt contrast between my wilderness home nestled in a hollow among hundreds of acres of remote Appalachian foothills could not have been more disquieting.

Take a pause from reading for a moment and listen to the sounds that surround you.

Count the layers of sound. How many?

You may hear traffic, an airplane in the sky, conversation, a lawn mower, even the hum of your air conditioning.

We live in an incessant cacophony of noise. In fact, scientists say it’s the noisiest age in human history. A medical study by the National Institute of Health revealed that 70% of our population have overall daily average levels exceeding the EPA (1974) recommended limit of 75 dB (dB is the abbreviation of the word decibel which denotes a unit used to measure sound) during an 8-hour period.

Normal conversation registers approximately 60 dB, a blender about 95 dB, and a personal music player or a fitness class about 110 dB. In general, sounds above 85 dB are harmful, depending on how long and how often you are exposed to them and whether you wear hearing protection, such as earplugs or earmuffs.

During the noisiest time in history—when millions of gasoline and diesel engines overlap with sirens of myriad emergency vehicles and ear-splitting lawn equipment, which gets smashed into dense urban populations—hearing loss is only a portion of what’s at stake. Half the population of our world live in urban areas. Traffic on U.S. roads has nearly tripled in the past thirty years, and the number of aircraft will increase by 50 percent in the next two decades.

For a while, I lived in Franklin, Tennessee, often cited as one of the most desirable small cities in America. It boasts an idyllic setting and a picturesque Main Street.

You may know that Oxford, England is called the City of Spires; and Paris, France has been labeled the City of Lights. But after living several years in Franklin’s historic district two blocks from city center I gave her the ignominious nickname City of Sirens.

Sandwiched between a police station much too big for a small town, two fire stations, an EMS facility, and a twenty-four hour torrent of traffic on Main Street, the decibel level often reached 120 dB (about the level of an airplane takeoff) for hours on end.

The stringent enforcement of the city’s speed zones and the rigid rules on parking space limits (sometimes as little as fifteen minutes) meant handing out over a million dollars of traffic citations to tourists and residents annually. Which added up to a deafening and endless din of sirens. The noise pollution in that cute little town rivals New York City, and with zero local noise level enforcement, the decibels will continue to increase as  the population grows. 

However, sounds don’t have to be a deafening 120 dB to cause harm. A constant barrage of medium decibel level sounds such as vacuums, typical conversation, dishwashers, hand drills, and blow dryers, all in the same day, will gradually take its toll.

One in two people ages 18-35 show early signs of hearing loss, mostly from listening to music on headphones at damaging levels. Listening to headphones on a subway or airplane only exacerbates the problem. The loud ambient noise forces us to turn up the music volume in order to hear it.

And hearing loss is only one symptom of the world’s increasing noise levels. As more research comes out, excessive noise has been associated with stress which leads to America’s number one killers—heart attacks and high blood pressure. The clamor also affects children’s learning outcomes and cognitive performance.

Over 20% of the population are very sensitive to noise—primarily people  like me who are very sensitive to stimuli. Misophonia is a rare newly identified condition for people hypersensitive to sound. People with misophonia hate certain noises—termed “trigger sounds”—and respond with stress, anger, irritation and, in extreme cases, violent rage. Common triggers include eating noises, lip-smacking, pen clicking, tapping and typing.

Which begs the question, what are we to do about all this noise?

A first step would be to evaluate the noise level in your everyday life in and out of your home. Download a decibel meter app to your phone and monitor excessive decibels. Identify these noise levels and create a plan to alleviate or avoid them.

A second step would be to purchase a quality set of noise canceling headphones. Wear them inside the home when using a blender of food chopper, and outside when blowing leaves or mowing the lawn.

A third step is to ask for silence. Not all loud situations can be solved by turning a button. Communicating gently but firmly to a neighbor whose dog will not stop barking, a person talking loudly on a cell phone at a nearby restaurant table, a neighbor’s late-night party, or the office mate who continually clicks her pen, can often solve the problem. It’s not unfair to request silence.

A fourth step is to regularly escape the noise. Even a quiet weekend somewhere like (shameless plug) our Kalien Retreat can reduce stress levels, lower your blood pressure, and increase cognitive performance. The sound of silence benefits health. Since moving to the wilderness (in less than 16 months), my physician has taken me off all previously prescribed cholesterol and blood pressure medication. Peace and quiet as well as the sounds of nature are important to achieving true relaxation and good health.

Keep searching for quiet on your own. Don’t give up. Noise is one of the major reasons that life wears us down, affecting our body, soul, mind, and spirit. Reclaim your peace and quiet. Turn the volume of your life down.

You can do it. Jalaluddin Rumi says, “The quieter you become, the more you can hear.” It is in the sound of silence that we find our true self—and our inner being cannot be nourished in noise and restlessness. We must learn to seek silence. Nature flourishes in silence; the stars, the moon and the sun, move in silence. We need silence to be able to touch our soul and live in peace.

Created by Randy Elrod

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