Improve heart health, decrease stress, boost happiness: take off your headphones

My gumboots squelch on the muddy grass as I lug an awkwardly-sized laundry basket of cold, wet washing outside. My thoughts are on the morning rush: I need to hang this washing out, make my lunch, get the 3-year-old ready, brush my teeth, make the beds and do my makeup in, eek, 15 minutes. My heart rate is pumping and my jaw is clenched. I need to get this shit done. Fast.

But something changes my mood as I peg cold clothes on the line with increasingly numb fingers. I don’t live rurally by any stretch of the imagination, but I do live down a long driveway on a dead end street, and I can’t hear any traffic. No one is mowing their lawn on this cold, wet morning, or blasting music through speakers turned up way too loud. Through the silence, I can hear something a few blocks away, carried on the wind to my backyard. It’s faint but it’s unmistakable: the rumbling of ocean waves building to a crescendo and crashing gloriously with a low roar. My heart rate slows and a smile tugs at the corners of my mouth. The morning rush is still there, but I’m no longer stressed about it. It’s a good day.

We increasingly live in a world of noise pollution. And I don’t just mean the obvious loud stuff like rock concerts and construction work that damages hearing. I mean the never ceasing low-level humdrum of cars driving past, TV and devices playing videos, music pumped through the speakers at the gym, and headphones blasting noise directly into our eardrums. Constant noise. Children are presenting with hearing impairment younger than ever, and children exposed to consistent noise have more trouble at school. I love music and podcasts as much as the next person, but sometimes I find myself craving silence. For good reason.

Silence helps you concentrate

I grew up in a big family and am known at work for being able to tune out most of the conversations happening around me in the open plan office, but everyone has a limit. It’s simply not possible to fully concentrate if your ears are being assaulted. For me, it doesn’t have to be loud, it just has to be too many things: the music playing on the gym speakers, the conversations of my fellow gym goers and the podcast playing through my headphones – I just can’t concentrate. And kids are particularly susceptible. Ever try to talk to ask your child a question when there’s music playing, the TV’s on and chatter all around?

Silence boosts brain cell growth

We need sleep, sure, but we also need wakeful rest. Our minds are constantly bombarded with information, we’re always stimulated. Silence can help slow things down and restore the brain’s cognitive resources. In one study in mice, silence was shown to prompt brain cell growth in the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for memory, learning and emotional regulation), whereas listening to Mozart or baby mouse calls did not.

Silence improves memory

Wakeful rest also boosts long-term memory. A 2015 study showed that a brief, wakeful rest after learning improved recall 7 days later. And 2014 study in amnesia patients showed a ten-minute rest in a quiet room boosted recall up to 49 per cent. In those without amnesia, it was up 30 per cent. Amazing!

Silence decreases stress

Loud noises activate the amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for the stress response – and cortisol (the stress hormone) is released. The good news is that silence reverses this, reducing cortisol and making you feel a whole lot calmer.

Silence makes you happy

Silence not only reduces the stress response, it also releases serotonin, endorphins and oxytocin – happy hormones. This explains why I felt so at peace hanging out the washing, when I could hear nothing but the faint sounds of the ocean.

Silence improves heart health

It’s no surprise that a 2008 study of over 4.000 people who had lived close to major airports were more likely to develop hypertension and cardiovascular disease. And a 2019 report found that traffic noise in Paris reduced the lifespan of residents exposed to it by three years. Silence lowers blood pressure, decreases heart rate, and increases blood circulation in the brain, which all improves heart health.

So, how do you carve out some silence in your day?

  • Turn things off. No music, no TV, no devices. Have 10 minutes of silence. If you have kids, this is a must for them as well. They need time to rest their brains – shut off the flow of constant stimulation.
  • Get outside. Somewhere off the street, where you’re in nature and can hear only natural noises, like the beach or a walking trail.
  • Lay in bed for five minutes before getting up. Take a few minutes to appreciate the silence and set the tone for the day.
  • Meditate. Even if it’s only a 2-minute mini meditation.
  • Take your headphones off. It can be super tempting to multitask by wearing headphones while you’re doing stuff, but you might find yourself more drained instead of rejuvenated. Try taking the headphones off every now and again.
  • Drive in silence. Let your mind wander (and your kids’ minds as well). It’s surprisingly refreshing to turn the radio off!

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