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Understanding Systemic Noise Trauma

Why Some People Are Traumatized by Noise While Others Are Not

Other than the infliction of hearing damage, most people find it difficult to believe that noise can injure people simply because such a contention is not consistent with their own experience. They say, "Well, I hear a lot of different noises on and off throughout the day, and I'm not traumatized by it. In fact, I am not much bothered by it at all."

First, you need to realize that you may be more tense than you think, and noise may be effecting you more than you know. If you have long been subject to the same level of noise, then, you may have long since habituated to the level of bodily tension created by that level of exposure. In other words, because the sound is always there effecting you in about the same way, you may have lost sight of the fact that you are tense, and that the one is causing the other. In fact, many people are amazed to see the difference in their own level of tension when they are finally able to settle into a truly quiet environment.

It could be, then, that some of the physical and emotional problems you may be experiencing actually are symptoms caused by your level of noise-induced autonomic arousal. That would be consistent with the perspective of researchers who concluded that noise may be harming you even if you are not aware of being bothered by it.

However, to be sure, being a bit tense and a trifle irritated by noise is not at all the same as being traumatized by it. Rather, noise-induced trauma can be said to occur when noise exposure causes such severe distress or injury over time that some significant degree of social, emotional, functional, or physical debilitation sets in.

Whether you are deeply traumatized by noise or injured at some lesser level, or whether you are simply irritated by its presence depends on several factors. For one thing, the severity of the injury you suffer when exposed to a given noise depends to an enormous extent on the level of toxicity associated with that particular sound. For example, if the sound of water falling in your neighbor's outdoor fountain is force-fed into your bedroom, that would almost certainly produce less of a response from your autonomic nervous system and, therefore, have less potential for producing injury than if the guy next door were to chain a barking dog in that exact same spot.

If you doubt that some sounds are more toxic than others, check-out the research done in the United Kingdom by the University of Salford, where they tested people's reactions to thirty-five different sounds, commonly thought to be grating, in an effort to determine which sounds human beings find the most aversive.

Obviously, the decibel level to which any given individual is exposed is also going to make a huge difference, with the louder and sharper sounds more readily shooting the autonomic nervous system into the upper tiers of high-arousal functioning.

How often you are bombarded with noise is critically important as well, because if there are long stretches of time in-between outbursts of unwanted sound, and there are no other stressors in your life to ratchet-up your ANS, then, the long periods of silence between outbursts will allow your autonomic processes to slow down and let you recover somewhat before some new stressor once again elevates your level of autonomic functioning.

Long breaks between outbursts of noise give the autonomic nervous system the time it needs to return to baseline with a regularity that is sufficient to maintain homeostasis. Therefore, the more widely spaced the noise, the less traumatic it is likely to be.

Remember, having a high level of autonomic arousal is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, it only becomes a health hazard when the high level of autonomic functioning becomes by far the dominant mode and remains so over time, because in that circumstance the physical body begins to break down under the all-too-frequent strain, as does the psyche, which often lays waste to family and social relationships along the way.

When the noise occurs is also critically important. Even a little noise can be extremely detrimental if it is projected into your home during the very limited time that you might have otherwise slept or relaxed, because sleep and recuperative relaxation are not luxuries. Rather, they are essential to the effective functioning of the autonomic nervous system and the maintenance of good health.

What the noise costs you and how much you suffer from it will definitely factor in to the question of to what extent exposure to a given level of noise is likely to traumatize any given individual. For example, if noise from the neighbor's place keeps you from sitting outside in your hot tub, that is sure to be less upsetting than if noise force-fed into your bedroom throughout the night compels you to get up and go to work the next day with only two or three hours of sleep.

The general rule is that the more noise interferes with your ability to meet your needs, the more traumatic your exposure will be, with your ability to fulfill your basic needs of rest, relaxation, and sleep, being more critical variables than your capacity to satisfy your more subtle requirements.

How much stress the subject is under to begin with is another critical factor. Some people are constantly on edge from a wide-ranging array of irritants that have their autonomic systems already running on overtime as they attempt to cope with multiple stressors that all but overwhelm them, even in the best of times. For those who are so severely lacking in resilience, just a little noise forcibly projected into their last refuge can quickly bring them to the breaking point. Therefore, to a large extent, the condition you were in before you were forcibly exposed to noise will also figure-in, with people who were already under stress, in ill-health and/or living on the margin at the outset, sure to be impacted more readily.

Written by Craig Mixon, Ed.D. - Barking Dogs Webmaster

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