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Switching Sounds: The Benefits of White Noise for Anxiety and Sleep

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The sound energy of white noise is the same across the entire spectrum. Learn how this handy shock-absorber can relieve anxiety and improve sleep.

Over the course of the pandemic, many of us have embraced the bounties of more peace and quiet, and we would happily do without the ear-rattling cacophony of traffic noise, office environments, and urban construction work of our pre-pandemic lives.

Of course, noise is all around us, and it’s largely out of our control. If you’re struggling with stressful environmental noise and earplugs won’t cut it, listening to white noise can provide auditory relief, particularly when trying to sleep.

Switching Sounds

By nature, noise is unwanted. Surprising sounds can activate our stress response because our hearing acts as a key warning system. Most of the time this serves us well.

But chronic noise can have a serious impact on our mental and physical health. A cross-sectional study in Germany involving over 15,000 citizens found that noise annoyance was strongly related to depression and anxiety ratings. More severe noise annoyance was linked with aircraft noise, with traffic noise coming in second and neighborhood noise ranking third.

So, why is white noise any better than other types of noise?

White noise engulfs our total hearing range (20-20,000 hertz), which makes it an effective mask for other environmental sounds. The sound energy of white noise is the same across the entire spectrum, providing a handy noise shock-absorber that can block attention-grabbing ambient sounds.

Natural White Noise

Do you find it easy to snooze at the beach or find yourself craving an afternoon nap on rainy days? The soothing sounds of lapping ocean waves or steadily falling raindrops can provide a calming lullaby amid an otherwise noisy environment.

Continuous sounds in nature such as waterfalls, rainfall, and the repetition of gently crashing sea waves often meet the frequency criteria of white noise and can be classified as natural white noise.

This type of sound can help with anxiety by masking irritating sounds and also by stimulating alpha brain waves, which have been linked to more relaxed mental states and the reduction of anxiety.

One clinical trial found listening to nature-based sound therapy (including sounds of waterfalls and rainfall) significantly reduced anxiety and agitation levels of heart bypass patients during a medical procedure compared to those who didn’t receive sound therapy. Another study found playing white noise (such as ocean waves or running water) for 20 minutes a day over four weeks reduced agitated behaviors of dementia patients.

Some people have a lower tolerance for noise and may experience intense negative emotional responses to particular sounds. But seeking out silence can actually make this problem worse.

Instead, sound enrichment therapy is often recommended for people with reduced sound tolerance or who suffer from tinnitus (ringing in the ears). It typically involves listening to natural sounds or white noise on a regular basis. Curiously, sound therapy can help relieve symptoms by weakening the connection between noise and an automatic stress response—showing how controlled noise may help to retrain our brain to interpret noise differently.

White Noise and Sleep

White noise makes it harder for our brains to distinguish between background noise and sudden bumps in the night that can shake us from our slumber. White noise can also offer a convenient “warm-up” noise for louder noises that follow, which may diminish our normal reflex reaction toward startling sounds.

It’s important to find a flavor of white noise you find comforting—don’t force it. If natural white noises annoy you, artificial white noises like the whirr of an extractor fan, or the rumbling churn of a washing machine may provide a more soothing melody. Many natural sounds fall into the frequency of what’s called pink noise—a slightly smoother sound than white noise, which many people find is easier on the ears.

Turn Up the White Noise

Even at a remote rural retreat, you may still end up pressing a pillow over your ears to block out the deafening tick of a bedroom clock or the murderous shrieks of seagulls at 5 am.

White noise offers a relatively low-cost and non-invasive intervention for anxiety and sleep deprivation in noisy places, with valuable knock-on effects for physical and mental health. If you’re struggling with the sounds around you but are unsure where to start with the white stuff, there’s plenty to sample on Smartphone apps and sites like YouTube. Tune in to the sounds that calm you.

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