Mental health: I spent a year listening to white noise…”

Alexandra Jones explores the intersection of psychology and sound.

In 2017 I switched from music to white noise. I was on the platform at Homerton station – London Overground, Zone 2. Behind me two women were talking. In the distance the train whooshed towards us, traffic droned, a car-horn sounded, a shop alarm started up, a piercing whee-waw sound that I felt in my jaw. Two dogs barked, a man shouted, the women behind me had stopped talking to one another, they were making separate phone calls, their two conversations overlapped but they didn’t seem to notice. The train pulled-in with a hiss, the doors beeped, in the distance someone screamed in that inner-city way that no one pays attention to.

I couldn’t understand how everyone around me was just going about their day; seemingly oblivious to it all. I breathed in. I exhaled. I felt tears in my eyes again and thought don’t cry you pussy, keep it together.’ This had become something of a habit for me; getting so overwhelmed by noises that I’d just start crying. It was embarrassing. But then, anxiety can do some weird things to you.

Listen now: Alexandra Jones on her year of white noise

That’s when I stumbled across a playlist of white noise. White noise is the sound you hear when all the different frequencies of sound are combined together at once. Mothers play it to fussy babies as a way to soothe them to sleep — apparently it replicates the muffled hum of the womb. And for a year, it was the thing that soothed me, kept me cocooned, whenever I left the house.

I listened to celestial white noise in the office, loopable flight sounds to fall asleep, pink noise to drown out abrasive London streets. On the tube, I listened to the hollow, airified sound of an empty field or the low-grade whir of a giant fan. I made playlists of my favourites, hours and hours until I became a connoisseur of dry static. I listened so much and so often that I found the rich, wet tones of human voices overstimulating.

I know it’s weird – I was living it and it felt fucking weird. I stopped knowing which songs were popular and which artists everyone was streaming. Slowly Spotify stopped suggesting new tracks for me. Instead, my whole profile was dedicated to white noise – to the varying sounds of empty space. To the hum of nothingness. Even writing this down makes me ache for it — listening to white noise felt like a cold hand pressed to my feverish forehead. It was deeply comforting at a time when I was deeply in need of comfort.

Sound and anxiety

Sound has a fascinating impact on the brain. It’s processed in multiple regions, ones dedicated to memory, others to emotional response and yet others to motor functions and learning. Music has the power to elicit emotions, change your heart rate and alter your blood pressure. Other noise is similarly impactful. Scientists surveyed children and adolescents living in and around LA and found that those in noisy neighbourhoods reported being more stressed than those living in silent environments.

And it can be particularly impactful when you’re already on high-alert; an overactive fight-or-flight response means that adrenaline and cortisol are being pushed through your system almost constantly. The hormones trigger physical responses: your heart rate and blood pressure go up as your body works to pump more aerated blood to your muscles.

Your brain too; the prefrontal cortex is the coordinator of your brain. It makes sure that, among other things, you react in a way that’s appropriate to your surroundings. When you’re feeling safe, it makes you perceive background sounds as quieter and visual stimuli dimmer — meaning you can concentrate better on whatever you’re focusing on. Studies have found, though, that being chronically stressed or anxious can impact the way this part of the brain works. You find it more difficult to regulate the stimuli around you; sounds seem constantly loud, the world is constantly too bright.

I’m lucky that my anxiety was situational – related to events in my life which made me feel emotionally unsteady. I was prescribed some beta blockers and then, bit by bit, started to feel better. The first time I realised was the first time I listened to a song – a friend passed me his headphone, like you have to hear this…” – and didn’t want to cry. It was amazing.

Even now, though, I love white noise. I don’t do train journeys without it. I love the sound of outer-space, that vast nothingness, that cool hand on my forehead. And I still can’t quite work out what music I like. I used to know, I used to be so sure, and it makes me sad to have lost that. I rely on friends to send me tracks, instead. I listen to them again and again and then send out a message – another please – I’m done with this one…’ I am nowhere near as anxious. But that year-long anxious episode changed me forever.

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