Stress

Feeling Stressed at Home? Listen to Nature

Research shows the benefits of listening to natural sounds.

Posted Mar 31, 2020

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Woman with headphones.
Source: Stockpic/Pexels CC0

As many of us continue to stay indoors to help contain the spread of COVID-19, it’s normal to feel stressed. In addition to dealing with the grief process and overwhelming feelings specific to the pandemic, a coping method we usually have at our disposal — enjoying a simple walk in nature — also seems to be in short supply, as more and more parks and green spaces continue to temporarily close to further promote social distancing. 

Luckily, research shows that in order to optimize our functioning as human beings, it is not necessary to be physically in nature — just the sound of it can help us cope. 

According to researchers in a recently published study, sounds found in nature help relax the functioning of our fight or flight response; the typical physiological reaction humans have in times of stress, wherein our body essentially must prepare to fight a physical or psychological stressor (including, in modern times, writing a test or giving a presentation at work), or flee the scene.

The research, which was done in conjunction with Mark Ware, an audiovisual artist who recorded sounds in nature versus sounds in artificial environments, consisted of participants listening to either artificial or natural sounds while laying in an MRI machine. While having their brains scanned for clues into what works best to relax the modern mind, participants also had their heart rate monitored, which is generally elevated in stressful conditions.

After analyzing the results, the researchers concluded that there was a difference in how the brain reacted to stress when listening to artificial or natural sound. When listening to natural sounds, the brain connectivity suggested that there was an outward focus of attention, whereas when listening to artificial sounds, the brain connectivity suggested that there was an inward focus of attention.

An inward focus of attention is otherwise found when we’re in a state of anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. Beyond the brain, there were also other factors at play: “There was also an increase in rest-digest nervous system activity (associated with relaxation of the body) when listening to natural compared with artificial sounds, and better performance in an external attentional monitoring task." Participants who benefited the most from listening to natural sounds were those who were particularly stressed to begin with, while interestingly enough, participants who were quite relaxed actually found an increased heart rate when listening to natural sounds. 

Not only do sounds of nature help ease our stressed bodies and minds, but specific sounds of nature can help with our sleep quality, too.

According to Orfeu M. Buxton, a neuroscientist and faculty member at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, the types of sounds in natural environments, such as ocean waves crashing or a thunderstorm are "slow, whooshing noises" that are "the sounds of non-threats, which is why they work to calm people." Because of the repetitious, non-abrupt character of natural noise, which helps muddle alerting sounds, like a scream or siren, and soften the effect so as to mediate the threat detection system in our minds which would otherwise serve to wake us up, listening to the outdoors in slumber can help produce better sleep. 

So, if you’re feeling stressed inside, consider listening to the millions of "nature sound" videos available for free on YouTube — they may just help you relax and sleep peacefully.

References

Van Praag, C. D. G., Garfinkel, S. N., Sparasci, O., Mees, A., Philippides, A. O., Ware, M., ... & Critchley, H. D. (2017). Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sounds. Scientific reports, 7, 45273.

Reynolds, C. (9, Jan. 2018). Buxton quoted in Reader Digest article on sleep sounds. PennState Social Science Research Institute. https://www.ssri.psu.edu/news/2367/buxton-quoted-reader-digest-article-sleep-sounds