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There are countless ways to take care of your physical and emotional health: nutrition, exercise, sleep, and self-care practices such as meditation provide a solid foundation for overall health. But what if we’ve overlooked a critical component of health—silence? This is not the hypothetical silence we experience during meditation; this is real silence—as in the absence of noise.

Silence is a rarity in our noisy world. In fact, it’s so rare that we may not even realize we’re missing it until we experience it. Noise invades our environment on so many levels. We’ve grown so accustomed to the hum of the refrigerator or the sound of a jet flying overhead that these noises often don’t even register on a conscious level. Other noises—like the drone of a leaf blower—are more irritating, but we accept them as part of our everyday environment.

But these noises are not a natural part of our environment, and we’re suffering as a result. We are being inundated by sound. Some of it is necessary, some of it is not, but all of it is leaving a lasting impact on our health.

What Is Noise?

The word noise is derived from the Latin word nauseas, which has been translated to mean disgust, discomfort, or seasickness. Let’s face it—noise is uncomfortable.

Sometimes we create the noise, for example by running the blender or mowing the lawn. Other times the noise is inflicted on us by outside factors in our environment; this is referred to as secondhand noise. All noise is harmful to our health, but secondhand noise is especially so because it is out of our control. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, secondhand noise can be as harmful as secondhand smoke.

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Why Is Noise Harmful?

We process noise subconsciously. So whether or not we realize it, noise triggers a fight-or-flight response in our sympathetic nervous system. Even if we manage to tune it out or sleep through it, our subconscious is aware of it. Noise can have a litany of effects on our health. It raises blood pressure and heart rate and causes hormonal shifts that can result in anxiety, stress, nausea, headaches, mood swings, and more. Noise has been associated with cardiovascular disease, tinnitus, irritability, depression, and insomnia.

Noise leaves a trail of destruction in its wake.

Combatting Noise

Unfortunately, noise is an inevitable part of modern life, and it’s unrealistic to think that we can do away with it entirely; we can, however, take steps to mitigate our exposure to noise. Organizations such as Noise Free America, NoiseOFF, and the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse are working to educate consumers and legislators about the effects of noise. Some communities have gone so far as to pass noise ordinances. If you feel you are being exposed to excessive noise in your community, these organizations provide a number of resources for taking action. In the meantime there are numerous ways you can reduce your noise exposure:

Use noise preventive strategies in your home, such as double-pane windows and carpeting.

Disable the sounds you can live without, from the buzz of the dryer to the car-locking mechanism on your car and even the “ding” of your e-mail and text message alerts.

Shop for quiet appliances. Technology has come a long way, and many appliances such as refrigerators and dishwashers now offer low-decibel ratings.

Choose muscle power when possible. Use a push lawnmower and a rake in lieu of a gas-powered lawnmower and a leaf blower.

Carry earplugs in your purse so you have them when you need them.

Take quiet time in wilderness areas to recharge. Consider a camping vacation over Disneyland and relish in the sound of silence.

Practice relaxation techniques to offset the anxiety caused by noise in your environment.