Background noise is a powerful tool.
Nothing gets me to sleep quite like a podcast I’m only half listening to, a chatty ‘get ready with me’ video by a YouTuber I’ve never heard of, or an instrumental playlist.
Never mind essential oils or magnesium, for the last few years, background noise has been my preferred sleep aid.
It may sound somewhat counterproductive that noise can actually help you drift off to sleep, but, anecdotally, it’s fairly common for people to opt for background noise over counting sheep when their head hits the pillow.
Leeds-based Anna, 23, has been using background noise to fall asleep since she discovered a popular mediation app after years of struggling to initially fall to sleep.
‘I’ve had trouble sleeping since I was a teenager and could never find a way to fall asleep,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘I’d tried breathing techniques, counting backwards and even music but nothing worked.
‘Then, when I started using the Calm app for meditation, I noticed they had sleep stories and sleep meditations.
‘As soon as I started using them I had a much better time falling asleep.
‘It’s funny because my boyfriend will have his earphones in listening to a podcast to get to sleep and I’ll have mine in with a sleep story. It works for us both, and has helped massively with my anxiety around sleep.’
She adds that the background noise helps to distract her from overthinking.
But why do some people need background noise to fall asleep or concentrate?
For psychotherapist Heather Darwall-Smith, of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), deliberately used background noise – like a podcast or white noise – can engulf and block out any unwanted, disturbing noises, like a clock ticking, or the traffic outside.
‘It works because the sound is consistent, allowing us to focus on it,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.
‘This focus acts as a distraction for the mind and can be a powerful tool in reducing the racing mind.’
But, we have to be a little more specific when it comes to choosing the right background noise to help us concentrate.
‘Many background noises and environmental sounds can increase your stress levels which will significantly disrupt concentration,’ she says.
‘Various studies have been conducted into how background noise affects us – one showed that background music with lyrics had significant adverse effects on concentration and attention.
‘Open-plan offices are also notorious for impacting levels of engagement, but one study showed that listening to sounds of nature via headphones reduced distraction.’
So, using background noise to sleep or work is normal. But is it actually good for us?
‘Unwanted background noises can increase cortisol, the stress hormone, so controlling your use of background noise puts you into a position of control and might help in the short term,’ says Heather.
‘However, a recent review of studies looked at using noise as a sleep aid, and the findings were mixed: while noise possibly helped the individual fall asleep, at least one study suggested the noise may lead to more disrupted sleep.
‘The brain does need to switch off at night; noise – whatever it is, will stimulate your auditory cortex – the part of the brain that helps us perceive sound.
‘Ideally, looking at other ways to improve sleep that doesn’t involve noise will improve long-term outcomes.’
But, if we must, Heather recommends listening to music or speech with a 60–80 beats per minute (BPM) tempo.
‘This tempo roughly mimics the human resting heart rate is proven to induce physical and mental calm,’ she says.
Podcasts can also be a good short-term solution to getting yourself to sleep.
Heather says: ‘Podcasts offering adult bedtime stories typically feature a warm, baritone voice recounting a series of slow-paced, meandering stories or articles. However, most listeners report that a deep, relaxed voice is the one most likely to lull them to sleep.’
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