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Understanding Systemic Noise Trauma

Noise and the Autonomic Nervous System

If you want to understand how noise injures people, physiologically, socially, and psychologically, and you are hoping to make sense of the Symptoms & Side Effects of Noise poster, you first need to understand that the human body has a mind of its own, by which I mean that the inner workings of our bodies -- like breathing, digestion, the regulation of hormonal levels, alterations in blood flow, and the beating of our hearts, among others -- are all regulated below the level of conscious awareness.

These inner workings of the human body are part of something called the autonomic nervous system, which is closely linked to the endocrine system. The more you know about those two bodily systems, the easier it will be for you to understand the mechanism whereby noise destroys all that human kind holds most dear.

The unconscious processes of the human body must find their own pace because, to function optimally, the speed with which the inner body goes about its business must fluctuate if it is to effectively facilitate the activity in which we are engaged at the moment. Sometimes our hearts pound and we breathe quickly as our bodies gear-up for an exciting or strenuous event, and sometimes we relax as our inner, autonomic processes slow, in an attempt to gear-down for a non-threatening or a physically undemanding event.

It is important to note that the speeding up and the slowing down of our inner, autonomic functioning is regulated by a particular part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which sends electrical messages that cause a body-wide transformation as many of our inner processes speed up or slow down in unison.

You can't be excited or alert without your autonomic processes first shifting into a higher gear, and you can't relax or fall asleep unless your inner system slows down. Therefore, our energy level and our level of attentiveness, as well as our ability to relax and fall asleep, are all determined and limited by our autonomic processes. Even our ability to function sexually is dependent upon the capacity of our autonomic nervous systems to transform themselves as necessary, in order to carry us smoothly between the dimensions of tension and relaxation as it constantly adjusts to keep us in a state of being that is consistent with the task at hand.

To understand how people are impacted by noise force-fed into their homes, you also have to realize that emotion is physical in nature, by which I mean that you can only experience a given emotion if you are physiologically in a state that is consistent with that emotion. For example, you can't feel depressed or deeply mellow unless your autonomic processes slow way down, and you can't feel panicky or wildly elated unless they speed way up.

Therefore, emotion is a physiologically-based phenomenon in that along with fluctuations in our autonomic function come shifts in our endocrine systems, as hormones are released into our blood streams that cause us to experience a given emotion. Without the necessary hormones present in your system, you cannot experience a given emotion and, with those hormones in your blood stream, there is no way that you can avoid experiencing that particular emotion.

The emotion we feel is one with the consciousness we experience, and both are determined by the state of our autonomic and endocrine systems. Indeed, among other things, consciousness, blood flow patterns, energy level, alertness, muscle tension, digestion, and sexual functioning, along with one's emotional state, all fluctuate in tandem with our autonomic processes.

Life is such that sometimes we need to be in a highly alert, high-energy state with all of our autonomic processes revved-up, just so we can deal with the demands the outside world is making on us. Other times we need to slow down and relax, either because the moment calls for a relaxed perspective, or because our bodies are physically over-extended and we need to rest.

That is what our autonomic nervous systems do. They help us to get our bodies into the optimal gear by creating a body-wide slow-down or speed-up of our inner processes in order to create both the physiologic and the emotional state most conducive to what we need to do in order to deal effectively with the situation in which we find ourselves.

Our health, our happiness, and our ability to function effectively, then, are all dependent on our autonomic nervous systems being in proper trim, so that our level of autonomic arousal can fluctuate as our physical condition and our external circumstance dictate.

If you hope to feel good and be effective in the arena of life, then, your autonomic nervous system needs to be in just the right gear for whatever it is that you are trying to do at the moment.

Because of that, we all find ways to manipulate our autonomic nervous systems as a way of keeping them in a state that is conducive to what needs to be accomplished at that particular moment. If we need to rev-up our systems we eat sugar or have a caffeinated drink, or use tobacco, or cocaine, or one of the other stimulant drugs, while alcohol is just one of the many substances people use in order to shift their autonomic nervous systems into a lower gear.

However, pharmaceuticals are not the only way we have to regulate our autonomic nervous systems. You can speed-up or slow-down your ANS just by concentrating on something you find soothing or something you find exciting.

You can also elevate your energy level by kick-starting the ANS with a brisk walk or some other physical activity. Turning up or turning down the heat in the room can also trigger an autonomic shift, as can putting on or taking off clothing to adjust one's body temperature.

Soothing sounds like that of a small waterfall or a steady rain tend to shift most people into a more relaxed state. Silence can also result in a greatly slowed autonomic function, which is a big part of why people tend to want to have at least some kind of background sound going when they need to get things done.

Mellow music can shift you into an autonomic slowdown, which you are likely to experience as a calmer state of being, while lively music with a driving beat will tend to produce an autonomic speed-up.

Any teenager can tell you what an exhilarating rush it is to go to a concert where the sound is at saturation levels. That rush the teen concert-goer gets from the blaring music is due to the noise-induced speed-up of his autonomic functioning, which is accompanied by a release of hormones that contribute greatly to his sense of excitement.

Clearly then, noise can keep our level of autonomic arousal high enough to keep us awake and functioning in boring situations. It can even be fun and it is often exciting.

But it is no fun at all if you can't relax, or you can't have sex, or you can't get the knots out of your shoulder muscles, or sleep in your own home because the neighbor's barking dog, the din of traffic, the blare of train horns, or the roar of the local airport so disrupt the functioning of your autonomic nervous system that those things become impossible.

Click here for more information about the autonomic nervous system and how it is effected by noise.

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This page on Noise Trauma is part of Section Seven:
the Harm section of