What are the negative effects of noise?

All forms of noise pollution can activate the body’s stress response. When a stress response is triggered, it will typically look or feel like:

  • your extremities going cold and feeling ‘washed out’, this is because in a stressful situation our blood rushes away from our extremities and toward major internal organs.
  • a faster pulse and/or changes in breathing as a result.
  • the release of adrenaline and cortisol giving you the classic, fight, flight or freeze response to any possible danger.

Many of the unpleasant noises that we experience in daily life are short lasting and eventually subside, but can even the most inconspicuous presence of noise pollution have an adverse effect on our mental health? And what about noise that is more consistent?

In a study published in BMC Public Health, researchers found residents living in multi-storey housing in Denmark who indicated ‘annoyance’ over neighbour noise pollution, experienced an ‘adverse impact on a broad range of physical and mental health symptoms’ and specifically referred to the ‘physical stress-response’ that can be triggered ‘as a response to environmental noise exposure’.

In a recent episode of the long running podcast, ‘Stuff You Should Know’, hosts discussed how even in sleep, those exposed to passing aircraft noise pollution show signs of their stress response activating, resulting in sleep quality being disrupted. While, HACAN, a group to give ‘voice for those under Heathrow flightpaths’ are constantly campaigning to reduce the number of runways at Heathrow owing to the adverse effects that noise has on the residents living in it’s vicinity. And HACAN aren’t unfounded in their grievances, multiple research papers have found a link between exposure to noise pollution from aircrafts and railway traffic and depression.

Aside from activating the body’s stress response, the impact that noise pollution can have on our mental health is wide reaching

Some of the more common symptoms and effects are:

  • poor sleep: including difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep.
  • increased stress leading to increased anxiety.
  • anxiety around confronting neighbours about their noise output.
  • ability to focus and concentrate impaired.
  • feeling a sense of hopelessness or helplessness when the ability to control noise in your environment is taken away.
  • depression and exhaustion.

Focusing on the second to last point above, a 2017 conference paper actually found that a ‘Lack of perceived control over the noise’ actually ‘intensifies’ the negative effects of noise pollution on our mental health. The same conference paper identified that exposure to sustained noise pollution can even contribute to ‘nausea, headaches, emotional instability, argumentativeness, sexual impotence, neurosis…and psychosis’ and noted that ‘Children, the elderly, and those with underlying depression may be particularly vulnerable.’

Reflecting on the most common instances of noise pollution: traffic pollution (including air traffic), construction and neighbour noise, it becomes clear that exposure to noise pollution is tightly linked with inner city living. The experience of inner-city living is then compounded by whether or not a person lives in a more deprived area, and even more so when looking at those living in blocks of flats. This is because housing in more deprived areas often lack effective insulation and soundproofing, in both a structural sense and due to poor insulation in windows.

In this we can see that the adverse effects of noise pollution on mental health are also tied to an experience of class, most likely race and how this intersects with quality of life. As the 2017 conference paper also pointed out, those already experiencing mental health issues are likely more vulnerable to the effects of noise pollution and certain demographics of people (including women, those living below the poverty line, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic peoples and LGBTQ+ people) are more likely to be already experiencing mental-ill health.

What can we do in our lives to tackle the effects of noise pollution?

There are steps that can be taken with local authorities and councils to address noise pollution in your environment which can give you back a sense of control over what is causing you stress. However, one of the most effective ways to target the negative effects of noise pollution is to establish counteractive solutions to the noise, such as:

  • finding a space nearby your home that is quiet and relaxing, this could be a park or somewhere like a public library, however nature has been found to be particularly calming, especially when considering managing stress-levels.
  • consider investing in some noise cancelling headphones, or earbuds for when the noise becomes really overwhelming.
  • incorporate grounding and self-soothing techniques into the times you access a quiet space, this can include: journaling, colouring in, actively engaging your five senses, breathing exercise such as the 4/7 technique (where you breathe in for four through your nose and our for seven through your mouth).