Why dialling down noise promotes better thinking

I was lost in thought, busy putting together a new presentation when our neighbours started up a chainsaw to tidy up their backyard. Meanwhile my husband decided this was the time to come into the office for a fight with the printer that was stubbornly refusing to cooperate and letting out a series of high pitched beeps (the printer, not my husband!)

After what felt like ten minutes, but was perhaps in reality closer to 2 or 3, I gave up and left the room grumbling under my breath, to seek peace and quiet elsewhere.

Noise stresses your brain.

Noise is a stressor to our brain and studies have shown that exposure to chronic background noise damages our ability to concentrate even when we are not conscious of it – such as the sound of traffic, an air conditioner or other machinery hum.

So what happens if you are already exhausted through other forms of stress: overwork, sleep deprivation or worry? Researchers from the Karolinska Institute have found that for women and it may also be true for men, being stressed can lead to hypersensitivity to sound. I for one would definitely agree with their findings.

Perhaps you’ve already experienced that time where you become conscious of a dripping tap or banging door – it quickly becomes unbearable.

What this implies is that environmental noise factors need to be considered when looking for ways to reduce stress levels in the workplace, especially in a high-pressure work environment.

We worry about stress because of its association with poor health outcomes and risk of heart disease. It also makes it much harder to maintain access to the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain we use for higher executive thinking.

It’s how we respond to stress that counts.

It’s not stress itself that is the problem, rather our perception and response to what we consider stressful events.

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

Maya Angelou

Researchers from Penn State and Columbia took a group of over 900 people aged between 35 and 85 and asked them to report the amount of daily hassle they experienced and to rate their stress from “not at all,” “not very,” “somewhat,” to “very” as well as noting their emotional state – angry, sad or nervous. They also recorded results from an ECG (heart rate monitor).

What they found was that having a greater variability in heart rate i.e. the variation in length of intervals between heartbeats, corresponded to a greater ability to deal effectively with stress. If you have greater variability it reflects your body’s ability to self regulate under different circumstances.

According to the study’s main author Nancy Sin “Higher heart rate variability is better for health as it reflects the capacity to respond to challenges. People with lower heart rate variability have a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.”

What this means is that in our high pressure, high stakes workplace where stress is a given – staying well and thinking straight will come from being able to keep our stress in perspective and see it for what it is- just a giddy up to meet a new challenge and a normal response.

How you choose to keep your stress in perspective will depend on what you find effective. What matters is having some appropriate stress management strategies in place to cope which that extra frazzle of an excessively tight deadline, jammed photocopier or missed lunch.

Meanwhile, if you like me find noise a nuisance and stressful, there is nothing nicer than the joy of noise cancelling headphones to restore peace and harmony and better thinking.

That printer is still playing up.

Do you find noise stressful?

How do you respond to workplace stress?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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