How Natural Sounds Can Improve Mental Health

Photo of mountain stream showing natural sounds are healing.
Photo by Christine John

“What do you hear?” I ask my young clients. “What?” they respond. When we are working on grounding, and I ask them to tell me five things they see, they immediately respond. But then we move on to four things they can hear, and there is always a pause. Even after we have practiced this one for a while, it takes them a minute. “I don’t hear anything.” they will tell me. “Listen,” I prod. Then they will start listing things they hear. The TV, someone talking, my voice. “What else do you hear?” I will ask. When we listen again, the responses are different—traffic noise outside, birds, the neighbor’s dog barking. We don’t always pay attention to sounds, but sounds can hinder or improve mental health.

Currently, most of my clients live in remote areas, and I’m often jealous of what they tell me they can hear. They usually mention birds singing or the wind blowing. When they ask me what I can hear, I have to respond with traffic and the hum from a nearby car wash. So in all the sounds that are going on around us, which ones are healing? And are any of them damaging? The answer to that last question is yes. If you guessed that nature sounds are healing and urban sounds are damaging, you guessed correctly. Natural sounds can actually improve mental health.

Photo of mountain stream showing natural sounds are healing.
Photo by Christine John

Chronic Exposure to Noise Pollution Can Damage Mental Health.

Noise pollution is a growing problem. Some urban areas such as my own have put protection in place, but it remains minimal. The noise ordinance where I live does not allow excessive noise between10:00 pm and 7:00 am. But that doesn’t stop the neighbor from cranking up the lawnmower at 7:01 on Sunday morning. Attempts have also been made to build concrete walls around freeways and adjust airport runways so that planes are not flying directly over homes. But there is still plenty of noise happening. And it’s not all good noise.

Sounds over 85 decibels can actually damage hearing. People living near airports, freeways, or other industrial areas may be at risk. But regular city sounds can also be damaging and directly cause hearing impairment. A study done in 2014 found that chronic exposure to noise for 8 hours a day could cause permanent hearing changes in children, including the inability to hear certain frequencies. Many children who live near noisy airports or streets have also been found to suffer from stress and other problems, such as impairments in memory, attention level, and reading skill. Continued exposure to noise pollution can increase stress levels and cause people living with the noise to feel irritable, on edge, frustrated or angry.

Photo of mountain stream showing natural sounds are healing.
Photo by Christine John

Listening to Nature Sounds Can Improve Mental Health.

If all of this noise is bad for us, what sounds are good? It turns out that sounds in nature are the best. Natural sounds can improve health. Researchers say they’ve pinpointed a scientific explanation for why sounds from nature have such a restorative effect. According to a new study, natural sounds physically alter the connections in our brains, reducing our body’s natural fight-or-flight instinct. In participants who listened to natural sounds, brain connectivity showed an outward-directed focus of attention. By contrast, when artificial sounds were listened to, brain connectivity showed an inward-directed focus of attention. Similar states of inward-directed focus are seen in anxiety, PTSD, and depression.  The results of this study suggest that listening to natural sounds may be beneficial.

A new study, led by Rachel Buxton of Carleton University, found that in areas where there are high levels of nature sounds and low artificial ones, listeners showed improved health, decreased pain, improved mood, enhanced cognitive performance, increased positive emotions, and lower stress and annoyance. In addition, different sounds had different effects, with water sounds proving best for improving positive emotions and health outcomes, while bird sounds helped subjects to overcome stress and annoyance. This new study suggests that natural sounds can have the opposite effect of noise pollution and can improve health.

Photo of mountain stream showing natural sounds are healing.
Photo by Christine John

Try Adding Nature Sounds to Your Environment to Alleviate Stress and Improve Mental Health.

It can be increasingly difficult to find spaces with natural sounds without some urban noise mixed in. Even on a hike in a remote area, you might still hear traffic or planes flying overhead. But sitting and listening to the sound of water, rain, the wind, or birds singing in the trees can help alleviate anxiety and stress. So be sure to take some time to get out in nature and take in some natural sounds. You might also consider creating natural sounds in your urban environment. The sound of water works well for masking traffic and other city sounds. Try adding a water fountain or placing a bird feeder outside your window and see what happens.