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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