Excess Noise: Bad for Your Mind and Body
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Excess Noise: Bad for Your Mind and Body

When Pat and Nancy Feeney bought a seaside flat in Scotland, they were hoping for a peaceful retirement. Last year, builders began repair work on the ferry terminal opposite their home. Unfortunately, the work could only be done at low tide.

"They would start at 10:00 p.m. and go on for six hours," recalls Pat. "The next night they'd start an hour later for another six hours. The noise was tremendous."

The workmen used old and noisy equipment, and left open the acoustic doors supposed to silence the generators. "It was horrendous," says Pat. "It was stressful and we couldn't sleep. Each night we'd think, Is this going to start again tonight?"

Bad News About Noise

Unwanted noise is a problem worth shouting about. Whether it's jack-hammering construction workers or your neighbor's 150-decibel sound system, it can result in mental and physical suffering. According to psychologist Arline Bronzaft, professor emeritus at Lehman College, City University of New York, toxic noise has been linked to stress, hypertension, cardiovascular disorders, and even deficits in children's learning and reading skills. A British mediation service claims that 70% of its work is with noise-related disputes.

"People woken at 2:00 a.m. night after night become ratty, depressed, and can become violently angry," says Professor Stephen Palmer of London's Centre For Stress Management.

A Growing Problem

"Noise has increased immeasurably," says Bronzaft, one of America's leading experts in noise and health. "In 1977, the National Academy of Sciences reported that over 40 million US residents were disturbed by traffic noise, and since then air and highway travel have increased greatly."

A study published in Audiology Today found that staff in popular restaurants may be going deaf because of the noise levels they are exposed to. Researchers from the University of California at San Francisco found that dinnertime noise levels in some eateries hit 105 decibels, the equivalent of a packed dance club.

How Noise Affects You Mentally

It's all about control, says Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the United Kingdom.

"The key factor in our reaction to noise is the amount of control we have over it," he says. "Research has shown that a person can endure a considerable degree of loud noise, so long as the sound can be switched off at will. The thought 'I can control this' keeps the stress at a low level."

A second factor is that noise is unpredictable. The gentle hum of the office soda machine isn't a problem. The next-door neighbor getting carried away with his new power drill can unravel your sanity.

What's the worst type of noise? A survey in Scotland found that car alarms are the most detested neighborhood noise, followed by people arguing, dogs barking, loud music, and banging doors.

How Noise Affects You Physically

On a physical level, unwanted, excessive noise can affect physical health because it creates stress and can disrupt sleep.

In his 1997 testimony before the US House of Representatives, Herbert Benson, MD, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, explained that stress "results in increased metabolism, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, increased rate of breathing and increased blood flow to the muscles…It is mediated by increased release of adrenaline and noradrenaline (epinephrine and norepinephrine) into the blood stream." Dr. Benson also testified that "scientific evidence has established that many medical diseases result from repeated exposure to stress."

Whether it's a 747 dusting your rooftop, or the sound system next door, unwanted noise can disrupt sleep.

"If you don't get a good night's sleep, you don't let your body repair itself, and you can't function well the next day," says Bronzaft.

How to Combat Toxic Noise

Pete Townsend, guitarist for the Who, publicly discussed his hearing loss to raise awareness of the damage that loud music can cause. He founded a non-profit organization called H.E.A.R., which is made up of musicians, audiologists, and physicians. The organization's goal is to prevent hearing loss and tinnitus, especially focusing on young people.

There are several steps you can take to avoid letting noise affect you:

  • Workplace noise—It's most important to gain a sense of control over the situation. If you're bothered by loud and persistent noise at work, like a bone-shaking assembly line, you can campaign for a better working environment, suggests Cooper. Failing that, you can wear ear plugs, try to change your attitude to one of acceptance, or change jobs.
  • Neighborhood noise—If you live on a main bus route and opposite a set of lights, you can move your main living room and bedroom to the back of the house, if the architecture of your home allows it. Secondary glazing, in which a second window is fitted inside the first, can cut noise by up to 50%. Even if they don't bring complete silence, these actions give you a sense of control.
  • Noisy neighbors—Most people don't like to confront the person they live next door to, and they fear that saying something about the noise may make the problem worse. "But it is vital to take some control if you can," says Cooper. "Writing a polite letter, if it's not possible to make a personal contact with a neighbor, can at least establish the idea of control in your mind. It also serves to let a person know there is a problem."
  • Legal action—If all else fails, you may need to take the legal route. Most cities have a department of environmental protection that will deal with noise problems. They'll come and measure the noise, and if it's louder than the allowable level, will issue a violation. If the problem is with a noisy neighbor, you need to call the police.

Relief, at Last

After three weeks of nightly racket from the construction work 30 meters from their window, Pat and Nancy Feeney called their local environmental department.

"They brought monitoring equipment, set it up in our flat, and recorded the noise levels," says Pat. "They took action right away, and within a day had it under control. Local council officials get a lot of abuse, but I could only sing their praises."

Quietly, we hope.


American Psychological Association

League for the Hard of Hearing


Canadian Academy of Audiology

The Canadian Hearing Society


American Psychological Association website. Available at: http://www.apa.org.

League for the Hard of Hearing website. Available at: http://www.lhh.org/noise.

Mind Body Medical Institute website. Available at: http://www.mbmi.org.

Who's not forgotten—a tribute to the Who. H.E.A.R. website. Available at: http://www.hearnet.com/about/about_WhosNot-dedication.shtml. Accessed April 1, 2008.

Last reviewed February 2008 by Elie Edmond Rebeiz, MD, FACS

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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