Tag Archive for: mental health and stress management

There’s a good chance you spend most of your time at home. It’s where you cook, sleep, eat, cozy up with a good book, and, possibly, work. And, for many people, the COVID-19 pandemic has made this all the more true.

No matter how much time you spend at home, however, one thing remains true: home should be a place where you can recharge and relax. It’s place where you can give your body and mind the rest they need. To do this, it’s crucial to create and maintain a healthy living environment.

There’s more to this task than you might think. Creating a healthy and clean living environment requires attention to nearly every aspect of your home. Here’s the good news: you can take it one step at a time! There’s no need to implement all of these tips at once.

What Constitutes a Healthy Living Environment?

When it comes to health, there’s a lot more to consider than your physical health. (Though physical health does, of course, play a big role in your overall health and well-being.) You also need to watch out for your mental and emotional health. And though you may not expect it, each of these facets of health comes into play when creating a healthy living environment.

So what exactly does that mean?

Nearly everything in your surroundings affects you in one way or another. Sometimes the slightest sensory detail—a persistent sound or odor—can introduce stress into your life, often subconsciously. When you’re out and about, you don’t have much control over your environment. At home, however, you have the ability to control many aspects of your surroundings. And exercising that control is crucial to creating a healthy living environment.

To create a clean, healthy living space, you’ll need to declutter. And no, this doesn’t mean simply tidying up around the house—although that’s a great start. You need to declutter physically and mentally, removing objects, messes, sounds, and even smells that could introduce stress into your life.

In other words, it’s all about being intentional with various aspects of your surroundings. A healthy living environment is made up of the sights, sounds, and smells that enable you to relax, recharge, and be your fully healthy self.

Neat and Tidy: The Physical Side of a Healthy Living Environment

As you try to create a healthy living environment for yourself, what better place to start than the basics? Save the sounds, smells, and other less tangible aspects of your house detox for later. Start with the messes you can actually touch.

Clutter—whether it’s dishes piled in the sink or toys strewn across the floor—can be visually unappealing. But it also takes a toll on your mental well-being. These types of messes are tripping hazards and constant visual reminders of what needs to be done. As the objects pile up, so does your stress.

Kitchen clutter also poses several other risks. By leaving food, moisture, and other kitchen debris in the open, you roll out the red carpet for mold, bacteria, and pests—all of which reduce the cleanliness of your living environment.

So by taking the time to do the dishes or clear your coffee table, you’re helping create a clean living environment for yourself, both mentally and physically. As you do these tasks, you might be surprised at how cathartic they feel. This is common. An added benefit of cleaning is that it can help reduce stress!

Harnessing Your Senses: How Sight, Sound, and Smell Impact Your Environment

Your senses—sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell—allow you to interact with your environment. Naturally, you’ll want to consider your senses as you cultivate your healthy living environment. (Unless you live in an actual gingerbread house, taste doesn’t really come into play here.)

Sight, as mentioned above, can greatly impact your stress levels. Does your house look clean? If the answer is yes, you can check that off your list.

Once again, it’s all about being intentional. Are you cutting out unwanted smells and replacing them with calming, desirable odors? And are you subjecting yourself to detrimental sounds or pleasant, soothing ones? The answers to these questions can help you establish your clean and healthy living environment.

Noise Pollution and Healthy Sounds in Your Home

Unwanted or excessive noise—also known as noise pollution—seems to be an inevitable part of life. And this means noise pollution will likely affect you in your home. Whether it’s the upstairs neighbors vacuuming at midnight or the early morning construction down the street, you can’t  fully escape intrusive sounds.

At their best, these unwanted sounds are simply annoying. At their worst, they can start to impact your physical and mental health.

When you’re exposed to noise pollution for extended periods of time, volumes as low as 60 decibels (which is roughly equivalent to the background noise in a busy restaurant) can start to take a toll on your ears, blood pressure, and stress levels. If the baseline volume of your home is around that level, you might find it difficult to fall, and stay, asleep at night.

So what can you do about it?

Not all noise is created equal. To help foster a healthy living environment, you should try to limit the negative, stress-inducing sounds in your home and introduce positive, relaxing noise in their place. This might mean buying thicker curtains to dampen external noise, or investing in a quieter air conditioner. Your solution can be as simple as playing classical music or nature sounds in your living room to cover up the noise.

Aromatherapy and the Power of Smells to Freshen Your Healthy Living Environment

Smell can be a powerful and underappreciated tool. The human nose can detect an incredible number of distinct smells—some good, some bad. Unpleasant odors in your home may indicate areas in need of a cleaning, especially in the bathroom or kitchen. If the bad smells persist, it may be indicative of a larger problem, such as a mold spot. Removing and preventing mold is crucial in maintaining a clean environment.

As with sounds, not all smells are negative. Some scents can have a soothing, refreshing effect. Purchasing a few houseplants can introduce a slightly woody, outdoorsy smell to your home that may help relieve stress. Houseplants can also help clean the air in your home, so it’s a win-win!

Something as simple as cracking a window can also do wonders for your home environment. An open window creates better air circulation, keeping your home smelling and feeling fresh.

If you want to take the power of smell a step further, you can experiment with air diffusers and aromatherapy. Air diffusers help spread the scent of essential oils throughout your home, allowing you to be extra intentional with the smells you take in each day.

Cultivating a Healthy Mental Environment

Cleaning and detoxing your physical home environment is a great first step, but it shouldn’t be your last. Your mental environment also deserves attention, too.

“Decluttering” the mind might seem like a strange concept at first, but think about the various environments you encounter on a day-to-day basis. Between work, the media you consume, friends, and relationships, your mind processes a lot of information each day. It also deserves a break—a good long exhale.

There are a number of ways you can declutter your mind and give it a rest. The process looks a little bit different for everyone, though. Exercise, meditation, and even house cleaning can be great ways to empty your mind and release some of the stress from the day. You can find your own way to unwind through trial and error.

Diligence and Forgiveness: Maintaining a Healthy Living Environment

A clean and healthy living environment looks a little bit different for everyone. You might care a lot about physical cleanliness and spend hours tidying up each week. Your neighbor might neglect their physical surroundings but carefully maintain a clean mental environment. And that’s OK! You don’t need to be perfect. Focus on the elements of your environment that matter the most to you and branch out from there.

And remember, maintaining a healthy living environment takes work and diligence. So if you find yourself slipping in one area, forgive yourself and move on. There’s always tomorrow to start again.

Stress is an inevitable part of life. It’s as much an aspect of daily existence as, say, eating. Between work, bills, and simply existing, a little stress is bound to pop up. And there’s nothing wrong with that. When stress piles and builds, however, it can become a black hole that sucks up all of your energy.

So how can you avoid the stress spiral and keep your life as stress-free as possible?

You’ll never eliminate all of the stress from your life—instead focus on reduction and management. How can you keep your stress levels to a minimum? You’re probably familiar with the usual answers: therapy, meditation, and exercise.

But it turns out there are plenty of uncommon ways to unwind, too. And you might be doing some of them already! With just a little tweaking, and a healthy dose of intentionality, some of your daily routines can actually become some of your greatest stress-relieving tools.

Fight or Flight: The Body’s Response to Stress

When you think about stress, there’s a good chance you jump to its effect on your body: elevated heart rate, rapid breathing, and all that good stuff. These bodily responses make up a large part of “feeling stressed.”

Then, of course, there’s the mental side of stress. If something is stressing you out, it can become all-consuming—so it’s hard to think about anything else. You might feel jumpy or distracted. This can also happen as small, otherwise insignificant, stressors pile up.

These responses to stress are the result of your brain’s fight or flight response, a holdover from when humans’ main concern was survival. Basically, if your brain perceives a threat, say a wild animal, your sympathetic nervous system triggers the release of hormones that activate those familiar body functions. It’s your body’s way of preparing you to either fight off a threat or run away.

That’s great if you need to run from a bear, but here’s the problem: in the modern world, the stressors you encounter have grown more complex, while the body’s response has stayed largely the same. An elevated heart rate and rapid breathing don’t help you complete a work report on time. It’ll just make you feel even more anxious and stressed. It’s a negative feedback loop that can be difficult to escape.

The Joys of Repetition: Turning Everyday Activities Into Meditation

When it comes to escaping that feedback loop, many people turn to meditation. Most forms of meditation have one thing in common: repetition. Whether it’s repeated breath patterns, mantras, or physical motions, the consistency of these actions can help keep your mind calm and clear.

But repetition doesn’t have to come in a formal setting to be beneficial. You can take advantage of natural repetitions in your life to help you unwind. A task as simple and mundane as ironing clothes can actually help you blow off steam (pun intended). The repeated motions you make with the iron, paired with the satisfaction of pressing out wrinkles, might help you clear your mind. And a clear mind gives your brain some much needed time to rest, helping reduce your feelings of stress.

Another strange, repetition-related phenomenon is the way human brains respond to fractals. A fractal is a repeated, identical pattern that seems to go on and on. Fractals occur organically in nature, but there are plenty of man-made examples in art and architecture, too. If you’ve ever seen an illustration of the golden ratio—which occurs naturally in seashells—you’ve seen a fractal pattern.

As you look at a fractal, you might immediately notice something satisfying about it. But the effect goes deeper than that. Studies have shown that engaging with fractals for extended periods of time—and allowing yourself to get lost in their repetitions—can actually help you destress.

The first step to relaxing is usually calming your body. Think back to that negative feedback loop of stress. If you can regulate your heart rate and breathing, your brain will begin to relax, too, breaking the cycle. That’s the logic—and science—behind most of these uncommon relaxation methods. They work because they break the cycle of stress, calming either your mind or body until the other follows suit.

The Psychology of House Cleaning as a Stress Reliever

Often when the stress starts to pile up, the laundry does, too. And the dishes. And dozens of other household tasks that suddenly become too overwhelming to even think about. Here’s the good news: house cleaning, dishwashing, and other chores can actually be a great way to unwind and relieve stress. The trick is getting started.

Clutter and untidiness can affect your brain in very real, often subtle ways. Visual clutter—whether it’s dishes, unfolded laundry, or toys that need to be put away—is a constant reminder of the tasks you still have ahead of you. And that reminder can add to your stress levels whether you release it or not.

The great thing about cleaning is that you see immediate results. By simply putting a few shirts away, making the bed, or washing some dishes, you’ll feel an immediate sense of accomplishment—and this can help alleviate some of the stress in your life.

If you’ve ever worked up a sweat scrubbing your shower or vacuuming the living room, you’ve experienced another benefit of house work firsthand: it can be a great source of exercise. Physical activity is one of the greatest ways to stave off stress—and yes, that includes some of your more demanding chores. When you vacuum the house, you might accumulate the same number of steps you’d get in a short walk.

Here’s the secret about exercise: it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing, it matters that you’re moving your body. And your chores can definitely fit the bill.

Finding Mindful Moments: Uncommon Ways to Unwind Each Day

Mindfulness is a meditation practice in which participants try to live fully in the moment. The practice involves acknowledging any and all thoughts or sensations that arise without passing judgment. It’s a time to simply exist, not to worry about the stressors of life.

Sound relaxing? That’s because it is. And you don’t even have to set aside time to practice mindfulness (although that is also a great idea). Instead, you can incorporate mindfulness into your day-to-day activities, like washing the dishes. Instead of just washing the dishes, you could wash the dishes mindfully. But what exactly does that look like?

Next time you wash your dishes, try to focus on the sensations you are experiencing. What does the soap smell like? How hot is the water on your hands? Paying attention to these sensations will help ground you in the moment and can, according to some studies, help reduce nervousness and stress.

This practice isn’t limited to dishwashing. As you go about your daily life, try to identify activities that would allow you to practice mindfulness—there might be more than you expect! Some such activities include:

  • Going for a walk in the park
  • Petting a dog
  • Taking a shower
  • Climbing a tree
  • Pulling weeds in the garden
  • Chopping (and eating!) vegetables
  • Finding clothes or household items to donate
  • Mowing the lawn or raking leaves

Finding Your Weird Way to Unwind

Stress may be an inevitable part of life, but, as you’ve seen in this article, life is also full of unusual ways to unwind. You just have to find the ones that work for you. So next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, wash some dishes and try to practice mindfulness. Or maybe vacuum your apartment. You might be surprised what works for you!

essential oils

essential oils

Some days just stink. Whether you mean that literally or metaphorically, turning to the soothing aromas of essential oils is a good choice. The intense fragrances of popular scents can help sweep away the feelings of frustration gathered throughout your day and replace them with a sense of serenity and calm. But before you started on a peaceful aromatic adventure, learn how to safely use essential oils.

Start harnessing the strength of calming scents by adopting the 10 tips for proper essential oil usage that follow.

  1. Understanding Essential Oils is Key to Safe and Effective Usage

You may be able to recognize the bottle or smells of an essential oil. But it’s also important to learn what goes into making the potent liquid inside. The easy answer is: a whole lot of whatever plant is picked for its aroma.

The good parts about using so much plant material in the making of essential oils are the strength of scent and the variety and accumulation of important plant compounds. But this super-concentrated liquid has the potential for adverse effects when not used properly. Essential oils are strong substances, and must be used as directed.

  1. Consider the Reason You’re Using Oils

You should investigate your impetus for turning to these relaxation tools. There are plenty of benefits to using essential oils—feeling relaxed, creating a calming environment, or helping with a sense of well-being.

You need to ask if you aim to create smells around you or target specific areas of the body for sensations of cooling, warming, or soothing.

  1. Your Reason for Use Leads to the Right Oil and Best Method of Use

Once you understand your needs, you can choose the right method and oil for the results you’re looking for:

  • If you’re seeking calm feelings, turn to scents like lavender, geranium, rose, ylang ylang, and vanilla.
  • If you want to feel energized, good bets include: citrus, thyme, peppermint, and cinnamon.
  • If you aim to change the smell of your environment, you’ll need to use a diffuser, dilute oil in a spray bottle for spritzing, or take a bath with a few drops of essential oils.
  • If you want a specific sensation on your body, choose a topical application. But you need to take an extra step, which is conveniently described in the next essential oil tip.
  1. Use the Proper Carrier Oil for Topical Applications

Using powerful essential oils in their pure form can cause irritation and more. For example, lavender—and other members of the mint family—can dry out skin after direct application. That’s why a carrier oil should be used for comfortable topical use.

A carrier oil is a neutral oil used to dilute the essential oils you use on your skin. And you want your carrier oil to be made of plants. Coconut, olive, and grapeseed are common carrier oils.

It also helps to test your mix of carrier and essential oil on a small patch of skin to see how your body reacts before applying on a large area.

  1. Maximize Your Diffuser

A diffuser is one of the best ways to fill your immediate environment with the pleasant, relaxing smells of your favorite essential oils. A diffuser works by creating a fragrant mist that fills the room—and your nostrils. Different diffusers accomplish the task in a variety of ways, but the basics are the same across the board.

Proper cleaning and storage help keep your diffuser working properly. Clean after each use (unplug the machine first) and store dry. And, as always, follow the instructions for use that come with your diffuser.

You can use your diffuser to have fun with essential oil blends. You can buy pre-mixed blends or experiment with different recipes. A quick search of Google or Pinterest will supply a wealth of examples of oils blends. But you can also experiment with mixing special scent creations.

  1. A Few Drops Will Do: Essential Oils and the Bath

You don’t need an exploding ball of foamy glitter to make your bath a soothing experience. A few drops of your favorite essential oils enhance bath time by providing soothing feelings of well-being. And, no matter the size of your tub, a couple drops are enough.

  1. Sometimes a Whiff is Enough

Drawing a bath or setting up a diffuser takes time. If you need a quick aromatic reprieve, twist off the cap and inhale a few breaths of your favorite essential oil.

  1. Safely Practice Uncommon Uses

This may sound familiar, but restraint is the key to safely and effectively using your essential oils. A few drops on your dryer balls will adequately freshen up your laundry. You can easily amp up your hand soap or lotion with a drop or two of essential oil. Spritz your bed with a spray bottle filled with water and a couple drops of lavender oil. Just keep it to a couple of drops to safely achieve scent serenity.

  1. Use Essential Oils Safely During Pregnancy, Nursing, and on Children

Pregnancy is a time for extra care. That’s why you should talk to your doctor or medical professional about if, and how, essential oils can be used during pregnancy.

Also, make sure to keep essential oils out of reach of children. And use them carefully and properly diluted in a carrier oil for topical use on little ones. Checking in with your kid’s pediatrician is also good idea before using with children.

  1. Remember What NOT to do When Using Essential Oils to Avoid Issues

There’s a right way to experience the power of essential oils. And there’s a wrong way. Here’s what NOT to do:

  • Don’t use internally in any way. That means you should never inject oils. Also, don’t take essential oils by mouth (unless under the direction and supervision of your medical doctor).
  • Don’t use outside of the instructions on the label—including applying more product or doing so more frequently than recommended.
  • Don’t use without diluting in a carrier oil, diffuser, or spray bottle of water.
  • Avoid exposing mucous membranes, eyes, or your groin area to essential oils. (This is especially true for peppermint oil.) If you do get some oil where it doesn’t belong, use a carrier oil, not water, to deal with the issue.
  • Don’t add more than the recommended number of drops (typically one or two) for any method of use.
  • Don’t continue using an essential oil that causes skin irritation.
  • Don’t dilute an essential oil with water for a topical application. Water will aid absorption, which can make irritation worse. Use a proper carrier oil instead.
  • Avoid direct exposure to the sun after a topical application of certain essential oils—especially citrus varieties. Lemon oil, for instance, can cause significant irritation when applied topically and later exposed to sunlight. Test with a small patch of skin to see the impact before you head outside for a longer amount of time. It’s always best to practice safe sun exposure—using umbrellas, long pants, long sleeves, and sunscreen.
  • Don’t use essential oils without proper consultation with a medical or healthcare professional. This is especially true for those who have medical conditions or are taking prescription medications.

As the world and workplace grow increasingly digital, it can be difficult to find time to truly relax or experience the benefits of resting. You might leave the office at five, but with smartphones and laptops, there’s always one more email to send or one last bit of work to finish up before dinner. It’s exhausting.

Add social media into the mix and there’s hardly any time left for rest, recreation, and relaxation. And, as it turns out, these activities play a crucial role in regulating your mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

Rest and relaxation can take a variety of shapes—it’s not all about sleep or going on vacation (although those are great ways to practice self-care). Everyone relaxes a little differently. To really see the benefits of resting in your own life, you’ll have to figure out what helps you relax. That’s where this article comes in.

Understand the Importance of Rest and Relaxation Through the Benefits of Resting

The demands of a career, relationships, or life in general can occasionally be stressful. But with a little practice, you’ll be able to avoid falling into the stress spirals in your life. And even if they do crop up occasionally, you’ll know exactly how to deal with them.

You know that old saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”? Well, that same logic applies to stress. In other words, it pays to be proactive. And here’s the best part: One of the easiest ways to prevent stress is through rest and relaxation.

In the past few years, a number of companies around the world have put this approach to the test with four-day workweeks. The idea is pretty simple: if employees are expected to work one fewer day (without any impact on their salary) they’ll be more relaxed, healthier, and more productive. And it works.

It turns out that taking the time to truly relax and rest can impact your life and health in a number of positive ways. Some of the benefits of resting include:

  • Increased energy levels
  • Greater productivity
  • Lower reported stress levels
  • Greater sense of fulfillment and satisfaction in life

To see some of these benefits in your own life, you’ll need to find a relaxation method that works for you. But don’t worry, you’ve got a lot of options to choose from—and relaxation can come in unexpected ways!

Recreation as Relaxation: The Double Benefits of Physical Activity

People often think of relaxation as passive. That is, they think you’re relaxing when you’re not really doing anything. Or not doing anything demanding, at least. And while that line of thinking isn’t necessarily wrong, it leads people away from one of the most effective forms of relaxation: exercise.

It might seem a little counterintuitive that physical activity can be restful, but there’s science to back it up. (It’s important to note that exercise rests your mind, not your body.)

You’ve likely heard of a “runner’s high.” It’s the rush of euphoria that many runners, whether they’re amateurs or old pros, describe. This so-called high occurs as your body releases endorphins, a natural response to prolonged exercise. These endorphins—chemicals secreted by the pituitary gland—can help keep you feeling good despite the state of your daily life.

Exercises such as swimming, running, or simply walking can also provide an almost meditative experience. As your body repeats motions over and over again, your mind is allowed to wander freely. Your brain enters a state known as the default mode network, which is a crucial time of rest for your brain.

If your recreation takes you into nature, you’ll see even more benefits. Studies have shown that a walk in the park or a hike in the woods can do wonders for your stress levels.

Keeping Your Mind Healthy: 6 Additional Relaxation Techniques

Physical exercise can be a great way to rest your mind, but, let’s be honest, not everyone has the time or energy to get out and exercise every day. If you’re not big on running, don’t worry—there are plenty of other ways to relax and give your mind the rest it needs. You could, for instance, try one of a variety of relaxation techniques.

If you’ve ever taken a deep breath and counted to 10, you’ve already dabbled in the world of relaxation exercises. These techniques are basically exactly what they sound like: practices that, when executed properly, can help you relax your body and mind. The similarities to meditation are unavoidable. That’s because many relaxation techniques are considered forms of meditation and vice versa.

There are countless types and variations of relaxation techniques. And if you decide to integrate intentional relaxation into your daily life, you’ll have plenty of time to explore those options. But for now, you might find it helpful to start by trying out these six basic types of relaxation techniques:

  1. Breathing exercises: Controlling your breath is one of the easiest ways to manage stress. It’s also a great entry point into the world of more advanced meditation techniques. There are a number of ways to practice controlling your breath, but most breathing exercises follow a similar pattern: breathe in slowly, hold, breathe out slowly. The goal is to make your breathing more controlled, consistent, and intentional. Breathing exercises can help you clear your mind and feel more in tune with your body and its needs.
  2. Progressive relaxation: As one of the most popular relaxation techniques, progressive relaxation is taught and practiced in the military, many meditation clinics, and even some schools. Progressive relaxation begins with breath control. Once your breath reaches a slow and steady cadence, you will begin to tense and relax various muscle groups in turn. You start with your toes and move up your body towards your head. Each time you release muscle tension, you exhale, expelling mental tension out of your body, too. If you’re a beginner, there are lots of great resources for guided progressive relaxation online!
  3. Autogenic relaxation: This relaxation technique is a bit of a catch all for a variety of approaches. All this category entails is using your mind and body control to change automatic body processes—slowing your heart rate, for instance. Autogenic relaxation often begins with breath control and might incorporate elements of visualization. The end goal is pretty simple: through your own awareness of your body, you are able to influence your heart rate, breathing, and other systems to help deal with stress.
  4. Visualization: This technique exercises your imagination. Visualization is the practice of imagining a soothing scene or place, with as much sensory detail as possible. When you begin practicing visualization, you might find it useful to enlist online help. These resources will talk you through the process, telling you what setting to picture and what senses to pay special attention to. The more you practice, the better you’ll become at rendering these scenes without prompting. Like many other relaxation techniques, visualization can help regulate breathing, heart rate, and other bodily responses to stress.
  5. Mindfulness: One of the biggest stressors in the workplace is the urge to always look ahead. What projects are due next? What emails do you need to send tomorrow? And in a fast-paced work environment, a little forethought is crucial. But it’s also important to focus on the present. Mindfulness is a type of meditation in which you regulate your breathing and try to focus solely on the present moment. What thoughts are coming to your mind? What sensations can you feel? Each experience is acknowledged, but not judged—you’re simply existing in the moment.
  6. Yoga: At this point, you’re probably familiar with yoga. This popular recreational practice combines many of the various relaxation methods discussed in this article: breath control, physical exercise, and mindfulness. Though yoga is a physically strenuous activity, many practitioners find it incredibly relaxing. Yoga is a great way to feel more connected to your body and relax. And, as an added bonus, it’ll help you increase your core strength and flexibility!

Harnessing the Benefits of Rest

After a long, busy day, sometimes just kicking back and watching Netflix seems like the best way to relax. Or maybe scrolling mindlessly through Instagram for an hour or two. While there is a time and a place for those activities, you should not mistake them for proper rest or relaxation.

To really see the benefits of rest in your own life, you have to take an active approach. Get outside and walk for an hour one evening. Maybe try incorporating 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation before bed each night. Your brain needs a break from the stress of the day as much as you do—be sure you’re giving yourself the rest you need to thrive.

In the hubbub and hurry of today’s world, it can be hard to find a peaceful moment of cognitive rest. Between bills, work responsibilities, and the demands of your relationships, you might feel like you have hundreds of tasks to take care of each day. And, honestly, there’s a good chance you do. It’s an overwhelming feeling. To make matters worse, the more you have to do, the harder it becomes to focus on a single task.

So what’s the solution? In the face of so many looming tasks, what can you do to boost productivity? The answer is a bit counterintuitive: instead of spending every waking moment focused on completing to-do’s, take some time to unfocus. Or, in other words, give your brain a break.

In a world obsessed with productivity, idleness is often cast in a negative light—it’s equated to laziness and sloth. But the truth is, cognitive rest plays a vital role in optimizing brain functionality.

Cognitive Rest: It’s Not All About Sleep

The importance of a good night’s sleep is one of the most frequently touted health facts. Ask any two people how much sleep is considered optimal and they’ll probably give you the same answer: eight hours. And it’s true, scientists do recommend that all adults try to get a full eight hours of sleep each night. But it turns out, eight hours of sleep is not the only type of rest your brain needs to keep functioning at its best.

The other type of cognitive rest occurs when you are not actively engaged in a task that requires a lot of attention. During these periods, your brain engages the default mode network (DMN). This is just a fancy way of saying that your brain’s energy is no longer being exerted on conscious tasks. Basically, your mind is allowed to wander or zone out. And that’s a good thing.

It’s important to note that cognitive rest does not mean your brain isn’t working. In fact, the opposite is true. When you are sleeping or engaging the DMN, your brain is hard at work. That work happens subconsciously, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t understand more about what’s going on.

The Role of Sleep in Optimizing Brain Function

While you’re asleep, your brain sifts through the day’s information, deciding what is and isn’t important. Some information is committed to long-term memory and some is dumped. It’s like you’re restarting a computer—some data is stored on the hard drive, but the short-term memory, which is often responsible for slowing the computer down, is reset.

Sleep also gives your body time to help keep your brain clear of toxins. Throughout the day, various molecules and proteins begin to accumulate in your brain. This buildup is counterproductive—especially for neural connections. In other words, the system gets a little gummed up.

In the stages of sleep leading up to REM (rapid eye movement), cerebrospinal fluid—a clear liquid surrounding the brain and spinal cord—washes over your brain in waves. These waves help clear the debris, washing away the day’s buildup. It’s this process that allows you to feel fresh and sharp after a good night’s sleep.

Explaining the Default Mode Network

When you’re actively focused on a task—reading this article, for instance—you consciously interpret the information you are taking in. When the default mode network is active, on the other hand, your brain is engaging in subconscious interpretation.

Rather than interpreting external information, these subconscious processes often look inward. But what exactly does that mean?

As you go through each day, you take in extraordinary amounts of information both consciously and subconsciously. This information makes up the world as you know it. And you have a place in that world. When your brain engages the DMN, it parses through memories and experiences, making abstract connections that inform your sense of self. Through this process, your identity, morals, and more are solidified and expanded.

The connections your brain makes while engaging the DMN aren’t restricted to your sense of self. They can also help you find solutions to complex problems.

If you’ve ever grappled with a problem for hours only to come up with a solution while showering or walking, that’s your DMN at work! For the same reason, allowing the DMN to take over for a bit can enhance your creative thinking.

The Power of Daydreaming

One of the most common ways to engage the DMN is through daydreaming. Here’s the catch: not all daydreaming is beneficial. If you slip into a daydream where you imagine everything that could go wrong in an upcoming meeting, you’re not going to “wake up” feeling refreshed. You’ll likely be anxious, and, more importantly, you won’t have achieved any real cognitive rest.

To harness the power of daydreaming, you have to guide your thoughts. Fortunately, you have more control over your daydreams than dreams that occur in your sleep. This is where positive constructive daydreaming (PCD) comes in.

PCD is essentially the practice of lulling yourself into a guided fantasy. To do this, you’ll want to engage in a low-bandwidth activity—walking or knitting a simple pattern, for example. As you engage in that activity, allow yourself to entertain a wishful image. Maybe you’re relaxing on a beach somewhere with the sun on your back. Whatever image you choose, the key is to not become too invested. Simply use the image as a jumping off point for allowing your mind to wander. As you relinquish control of the image, your thoughts will likely turn inward and your brain will engage the DMN.

And, as you read above, that brain mode will help you achieve the kind of productive cognitive rest you need.

Four Activities That Rest the Brain

You might be thinking that the whole brainstorming activity feels a lot like meditation—and it is! It turns out several types of meditation, as well as a number of other activities, have the same effect. So what else can you do to unfocus and give yourself the cognitive rest you need?

Here are four easy activities that rest your brain:

  1. Going for a walk: There’s a reason walks are such an effective problem-solving tool. They take your mind off of the problem, allowing the DMN to work its magic. Research shows that the best walks for this purpose are unmapped and preferably through nature. Allow yourself to wander (safely) and your mind will do the same.
  2. Taking a shower: The shower is one of the only places many people truly relax and clear their mind. If you’ve ever stepped in for a quick shower only to leave 30 minutes later, don’t sweat it. As you lost track of time, your brain was relishing some much needed rest.
  3. Taking a catnap: If you haven’t been getting a full eight hours of sleep for several days in a row, an afternoon catnap might be just what you need to get back on track. Catnaps allow your brain to take care of some essential clean-out and consolidation, so you’ll wake up feeling refreshed and alert. Just remember to keep your nap between ten minutes and an hour—any longer and it might have the opposite effect.
  4. Playing a sport: It seems a little backwards that something as physically demanding as playing a sport can be restful, but it’s not your body you’re trying to rest—it’s your brain. Playing a sport (or other physical endeavors) can give you the chance to clear your head while staying active. Win-win, right?

Understand Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime and Find Time to Unfocus

Whether you’re trying to improve your creativity, escape that ever-present mental fog, or simply alleviate a little bit of occasional stress, try incorporating a little more cognitive rest into your life. If you’re already sleeping enough, add a walk—or any of the other activities that rest the brain—to your schedule. It takes time, sure, but you might be surprised with the ways it impacts your productivity and mental state for the better.

There’s a lot going on these days, so it can be hard to find the time to truly unfocus. But here’s the bottom line: your brain almost certainly needs more downtime. So set your phone to the side and make some time to rest your weary brain.

Each aroma your nose encounters sends your brain scurrying into action. Good smells may prompt a mental escape to a familiar location or pleasant memory with the accompanying calming feelings. But bad odors could send you spinning on your heels for a different kind of retreat.

These powerful reactions are the result of hard-won experiences by humans throughout the years. A sharp sense of smell was an evolutionary advantage. And it’s still coded into future generations’, shaping their interactions with the wider world.

Thanks to the abundance and advancements of modern life, survival might not depend on sniffing out rotten or harmful substances. But you can use your nose to aid your attempts to feel relaxed and refreshed during your busy days.

The Benefits of Aromatherapy: Why You Should Surround Yourself with Pleasant Aromas

Good smells are such a powerful draw that the global scented candle industry accounts for well over $300 million (USD) a year. It’s a much bigger number when you add in the fragrances, scented bath products, and other aromatic items people buy every day.

The money signals one thing: people are looking to improve the aromas around them. And this practice is nothing new. Ancient traditions around the world have used scent to better their lives for centuries.

That’s because the concept of using aromas to induce feelings is straightforward. And the benefits of aromatherapy are easily explained and experienced. They include:

  • Promoting calm feelings
  • Providing a sense of well-being
  • Prompting soothing feelings of escape and peace
  • Creating an uplifting environment
  • Helping establish a sense of harmony between mind and body
  • Sparking an energized feeling (for some specific scents)
  • Promoting a grounded feeling

Learning what certain smells can do for you is the first step. But now it might help to understand the science of aromatherapy.

Simplifying the Science of Aromatherapy

Scents signal portions of your central nervous system that deal with emotions, memories, and more instinctual actions. So exploring the science of aromatherapy starts with the interface between your nose and brain—the olfactory nerve.

Your nasal cavity is full of olfactory receptors that gather information from what you inhale. That information is sent up to the olfactory bulb—housed in your forebrain—for processing.

Important parts of your brain connect directly to the olfactory bulb, but for the purposes of aromatherapy, the hippocampus and amygdala are the most interesting. That’s because these two areas are tied to memories and emotions, respectively.

That’s only the physiology side of the science of aromatherapy. Other research has focused on how these neural connections manifest in links between aroma, memory, and emotions. Studies have consistently yielded data supporting the ability of aromas to trigger memories and an array of feelings—calm, energy, and well-being.

Many aromatic compounds studied chemically, as well. There are plenty to pick from, because fragrant plants contain hundreds of different chemical compounds. Some of the most notable include: Limonene (from lemon), linalool (found in lavender), the sesquiterpenes/terpenes in pine, and peppermint’s menthol.

Your Guide to Finding the Scents for You

Everybody has their favorite smells. They’re the ones that bring a smile to your face or summon a happy memory. Seeking out those scents that promote feelings of calm or serenity in you is made easier by aromatic aids powered frequently by essential oils (potent distillations of plant material).

Selecting the right scent for your personal aromatherapy experience is complicated by the sheer number of available options. Don’t fret. Modern approaches and ancient traditions can help guide your choices.

Scents that promote feelings of calm or well-being include:

  • Lavender
  • Vanilla
  • Jasmine
  • Ylang ylang
  • Rose
  • Chamomile
  • Geranium
  • Bergamot
  • Basil

If you’re looking to feel energized, there are scents are associated with those feelings, too. Look to citrus (lemon and sweet orange especially), peppermint, rosemary, cinnamon, thyme, and eucalyptus scents for prompting feelings of liveliness.

Also, earthy, woodsy, and some spicy scents are often seen as helping to provide a sense of groundedness.

Ancient Eastern traditions have incorporated aromatherapy for hundreds of years. But it relies on slightly different categorizations—yin, yang, and neutral scents.

Florals, citrus, and cooling aromas like peppermint are yin scents that can be associated with calm. Yang scents are spicy, warm, and energizing. They include rosemary, thyme, and ginger. Orange and sage are considered neutral, while woody smells can vary in their categorizations.

Start Your Own Exploration of the Benefits of Aromatherapy

Everyone has slightly different associations with smells, though. That means you may need to explore different scents and their impact on your feelings. Variety packs of essential oils are a popular starting place.

You can also mix different scents to create interesting blends. These combinations can create aromatherapy experiences. Try some common combinations:

  • rosemary, lavender, orange, and peppermint
  • eucalyptus, peppermint, basil, tea tree, and rosemary
  • lemongrass, orange, cedarwood, lavender, and frankincense
  • lemon, eucalyptus, and lemongrass
  • lavender, eucalyptus, and frankincense

Whether blended or alone, essentials oils are super concentrated with aromatic compounds. You only need to crack open the lid and take a whiff to experience the calming (or energizing) feelings that may follow. You can also add a couple of drops of a favorite scent or blend to a diffuser. And enhancing your bath with tea tree or geranium is another good option.

Whatever approach you choose, use scent to escape your day and focus on providing yourself with a sense of well-being. Experiencing the benefits and science of aromatherapy can help you facilitate soothing feelings of escape and peace. That makes aromatherapy the perfect addition to your self-care routine.

Sometime between 1 pm and 2 pm each day, students, stay-at-home parents, and corporate employees all fight the same battle: staving off mid-afternoon, post-lunch drowsiness. If you’ve ever experienced this, you know it can do a number on afternoon productivity. For most people, the solution is simple: load up on caffeine or an energy drink and power through. It gets the trick done, but is there a better way to cope with afternoon drowsiness?

As it turns out, there is! Recent studies suggest that instead of ignoring those heavy eyelids, you should succumb to them. Or, in other words, take a nap.

Some countries and cultures have an afternoon nap built into their daily schedule. But for most of us, napping is a rare treat—something to be enjoyed on the weekends or vacations. After all, the nine to five schedule doesn’t really leave time for a nap. As research continues to reveal the health benefits of napping, however, this might begin to change. (In fact some companies have already begun experimenting with company-sanctioned napping in the office!)

So whether you’re a nap enthusiast, skeptic, or simply curious, here’s why an afternoon nap might be just what you need.

The Science of Sleep

Sleep is one of life’s basic routines. It’s something everyone does (hopefully) every day. You’ve probably heard that the average adult needs somewhere between seven and nine hours of sleep each night—and that’s true. But why? What’s so crucial about sleep?

It’s a question scientists have researched for decades and they’re still uncovering new information each year. Here’s what is known: Many of the benefits of sleep have to do with the brain, more specifically, with memory and brain plasticity (also called neuroplasticity).

Plasticity refers to your brain’s ability to interpret and respond to stimuli. Basically, when you’re well-rested, your brain can interpret inputs faster. In practice, this might mean reacting to visual information more quickly or simply digesting written information the first time you read it. You know the sluggishness that often follows a poor night of sleep? That is, in part, the result of reduced brain plasticity.

The role sleep plays in memory consolidation is still being explored. Throughout the day, you store countless details, facts, and other information in your brain. It’s not until you sleep, however, that this information is solidified into long-term memories. For decades, researchers believed that memory consolidation occurred during rapid eye movement (or REM) sleep—the final of the four stages. New research suggests this might not be the case.

Because sleep plays such a big role in memory formation and retention, much of the research surrounding napping also deals with memory. But more on that in the next section!

Napping and Memory Retention

If memory consolidation only occurred during REM sleep, naps probably wouldn’t do much for your ability to remember. It takes about an hour and a half of sleep to reach the REM stage—that’s longer than most naps. And though scientists are still exploring the exact relationship between sleep and memory, one thing is clear: a quick nap can do wonders for your memory.

Does this mean taking a nap will help you remember the name of that one kid who sat next to you in first grade? No. But let’s look at the areas of memory napping can help.

Most people are familiar with the concepts of short-term and long-term memory, but that’s only one way to categorize your brain’s storage capacity. Human memory is actually divided into a number of other categories. Item memory, for instance, refers to your ability to recall individual items from a list. Associative memory, on the other hand, refers to your ability to remember things that are paired or linked. Examples include: This face goes with that name; that car is always parked in front of this house—stuff like that.

In studies focused on item memory, napping has no effect on participants’ recall. When individuals take a 90-minute nap, however, their associative memory has been shown to improve.

Napping can even increase your ability to learn and encode new information. In one study, participants were given an associative memory task in the morning and evaluated on their recall. After that morning session, half of the participants took an afternoon nap, half did not. When the participants regrouped in the evening, they were all given another associative memory task and evaluated on their recall. Those who hadn’t napped performed worse than they had that morning—that is, they remembered fewer pairings. Those who had napped—you guessed it—performed better than they did in the morning.

How to Nap Properly: How Long is Too Long?

Like most good things, napping requires moderation. Snooze for too long and you might miss out on some of the health benefits of napping—and negatively impact your nightly slumber.

A good nap should be refreshing, and, as it turns out, short. While there’s no agreed upon “ideal” nap length, most experts suggest keeping naps under an hour and a half—the length of time it takes to reach REM sleep. Some even suggest napping for just ten to twenty minutes. If you’ve ever taken a much needed afternoon nap only to wake up feeling groggy and, frankly, worse than you did before the nap, there’s a good chance you slept too long.

In addition to giving you that groggy feeling, long naps can throw off your sleep schedule, especially if you’re napping later in the afternoon. To get the most from your naps, try to catch those afternoon zzz’s before 3 pm. And always set an alarm. A 20-minute nap may not seem like much, but it might be just what you need to shake off afternoon drowsiness and boost productivity for the rest of the day.

Coffee Naps Aren’t an Oxymoron

Most people drink coffee to help them wake up or stay awake, so you might not think to drink coffee before you nap. Here’s the thing: it takes about 20 minutes for your body to feel the effects of caffeine. And that’s the perfect amount of time to catch a quick nap.

At least that’s the logic followed by proponents of the “coffee nap.” It might seem counterintuitive, but drinking a cup of joe and then immediately settling down for a quick nap can help you wake up feeling more refreshed than if you’d just napped or just had coffee.

The benefits of coffee naps are hard to quantify—after all, it’s hard to measure how “tired” or “refreshed” someone feels. It’s all subjective. That being said, studies have shown that consuming 200 milligrams (mg) of caffeine (about two cups of regular black coffee) and then napping for twenty minutes may help you feel more refreshed upon waking.

Taking Napping to the Extreme: Segmented Sleep

If you’re regularly napping for three or more hours, your sleep cycle might begin to shift from a monophasic sleep pattern—that is, one big chunk of sleep—to a biphasic or even polyphasic sleep pattern. And, depending on your schedule, this might not be such a bad thing.

A biphasic sleep pattern means you’re sleeping in two chunks or shifts, usually for about four hours each. Some scientists believe this is a more natural sleep cycle for humans, as it aligns with the sleep patterns of many other mammals.

With biphasic sleep, the idea is to go to bed when the sun goes down, sleep for four hours, wake up for a few hours of meditation, prayer, reading, etc., and then settle back down for four more hours of sleep. Some people swear by this approach, but unfortunately most of the world is built around monophasic sleep. So biphasic sleep is not the most practical schedule to follow.

Harness the Health Benefits of Napping

Traditional work schedules can make napping difficult, but as more people become aware of the scientific benefits of napping, sneaking some shut-eye on the job is becoming a more mainstream practice. And who knows, maybe this article was the push you needed to finally incorporate an afternoon nap into your daily schedule.

Even if it’s just a 20-minute catnap, an afternoon snooze could change your relationship to work and your daily grind! So why not give it a shot? The health benefits of napping are right there—all you have to do is fall asleep.

Nothing can ruin your day like a restless night. You go to bed exhausted, hoping for some sweet rest and recuperation, only to toss and turn for hours. And then you wake up, somehow even more exhausted. It’s an awful feeling.

After one of those nights, you might notice that your vision, hearing, and other senses feel a little, well, off. So what gives? Why does a poor night’s sleep affect your senses?

Sleep is an incredibly complex part of life, though it may not appear that way. Scientists are still trying to reveal a more complete picture of sleep’s vital role for the human body and brain. But there’s already a wealth of research on the subject out there. And some of that research explores the connection between sleep and the senses.

As it turns out, this connection between sleep and the senses is a two-way street—or maybe even a multi-road intersection. Poor sleep can reduce the acuity of the five senses, but the five senses can also be responsible for a bad night’s sleep. And, conversely, you can sleep better using your senses with just a little bit of planning.

The Physiology of Sleep

It’s only in the last 70 years or so that scientists have come to realize that sleep is not a passive activity—at least not on a neurological level. While you sleep, your brain is actively engaged in various activities that help your brain and body function properly.

There are two types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM). Sleep is further broken down into stages. During stages one through three, known as quiet sleep, you experience NREM sleep. It’s only in the fourth stage, sometimes called active sleep, that REM sleep starts.

The exact nature of each stage of sleep and the brain’s activities during each is still up for debate. But here’s what is known: sleep plays a critical role in solidifying and compiling memories. Without sleep, you’ll likely find it more difficult to remember things. Originally, memory compilation was thought to occur during REM sleep. Recent studies, however, indicate that NREM sleep might be more critical in maintaining healthy memory function.

Lack of sleep can also affect brain plasticity—or the brain’s ability to process new information and input. This is where sleep, or lack thereof, can start to impact your senses. Your senses are simply stimuli picked up by various receptors and interpreted by your brain. If your brain plasticity decreases, it responds more slowly to that sensory input. And the interpretation side of sensation slows.

Sleep and the Senses: What Happens When You Get Too Little Sleep?

As you just read, the less you sleep, the more your brain plasticity decreases, which can affect your senses. But what does that look like in practice? How exactly are the senses affected?

Let’s start with vision. Everyone knows that driving drowsy is dangerous. But, as it turns out, falling asleep at the wheel isn’t the only danger. In a study conducted on long-haul truckers, researchers tried to measure the effects of sleep deprivation on vision.

After 27 hours without sleep, participants responded to a series of visual stimuli. The results were about as expected: In their sleep-deprived state, the participants reacted more slowly to visual cues and they missed more cues than when they were well rested. This had nothing to do with eye function, however. The researchers conducting the study realized that participants’ vision impairment was all due to issues on the cognitive side. That is, participants weren’t seeing any worse; their brains were just interpreting more slowly and less fully.

When your brain’s ability to interpret input slows, it doesn’t just affect vision—it extends to all of the senses. In a sleep-deprived state, you might notice you react to auditory stimuli (or sounds) more slowly. And the mental fog that accompanies sleeplessness may begin to encroach on day to day tasks.

Keep Your Senses Sharp With a Good Night’s Sleep

At this point, you’ve hopefully picked up on one main fact: poor sleep can have a negative effect on the acuity of your senses. But let’s move past the negative and focus on action and self-improvement. This raises a new question: how can the connection between sleep and the senses be used to improve your senses?

Well, if you’re basing your answer on the past few sections of this article, the answer is pretty clear: to keep your senses sharp, be sure to sleep enough. This, of course, is easier said than done.

Fortunately, when it comes to sleep, you can use your senses to your advantage. With a few intentional practices, you can leverage sight, sound, smell, and touch to sleep more soundly. But more on that later!

Are Your Senses Working While You Sleep?

Even while you’re asleep, your ears are hard at work. That’s why loud noises will jolt you awake. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense. If your body and senses completely shut off during sleep, you would be incredibly vulnerable. There would be no protection from predators.

Instead, your ears are constantly scanning for potential threats. And, even while you sleep, your brain is actively interpreting auditory stimuli, deciding what is relevant and what is not. (Which is why you might wake up to your baby’s cries, but not your air conditioning unit chugging away.)

Your ears aren’t the only sense organs at work while you sleep. If someone turns on the lights, there’s a good chance you’ll wake up—that’s because your eyes are still taking in visual information, even while your eyelids are closed. The same is true of your sense of touch and even smell.

So what does this mean for you and your sleep?

Sleep Better Using Your Senses

When it comes to sleep, most people focus on the moments leading up to it. And while there is a lot you can do before you fall asleep, you can also take advantage of the fact that your senses are still operating while you sleep to promote sound, restful nights of sleep. Here’s how you can sleep better using your senses:

  • Sight: When it’s time to sleep, your body begins to release the hormone melatonin. But how does it know when to do this? It’s part light cues and part circadian rhythm—which is just a fancy way of saying your body’s internal clock. As the sun goes down and the world gets darker, the body naturally begins to release melatonin.
    Here’s the problem: the sun isn’t the only source of light in your life. And there’s a good chance you don’t turn the lights down until you’re settling in for the night. You may have better luck falling and staying asleep if you dim the lights in the hour leading up to your bedtime. Try to avoid any bright lights. And yes, that includes your TV and phone screen.
  • Sound: Obviously, a quiet environment is the most conducive for sleep. You may not realize, however, all of the noises present in your life. Whether it’s the sound of traffic from outside or your AC unit in the window, the noises that fade into the background while you’re awake can interrupt your sleep. To counteract this, consider soundproofing your room or turning the AC off at night.
  • Smell: Many people find that certain smells, such as the scent of lavender, help relax them. By exposing yourself to these smells, you can help yourself unwind before bed. Stress is a big culprit for restlessness, so the more you can relax before bed, the better you’ll sleep.
    There is some evidence that suggests these scents cannot only help you fall asleep, but also stay asleep. If you use a diffuser, consider leaving it on all night.
  • Touch: For many people, especially those who regularly toss and turn with anxiety, weighted blankets provide a big benefit. The physical sensation of weight on your body can have a calming effect, helping you both fall and stay asleep.
  • Taste: Chamomile tea has been used to help support healthy sleep for years—and with good reason. Studies have shown that chamomile contains the flavonoid apogen, which can have mild sedative effects. This can help you feel relaxed and, in turn, help you fall asleep.

None of these suggestions are a fix-all solution. Some may work for you, others may not. The point is not to make huge lifestyle changes. Instead, simply try being more mindful of your senses and the way they affect your sleep. And as you do that, intentionally try a few of these practices out. Hopefully your sleep will thank you!

Waking Your Senses Up in the Morning

You’ve woken from a good night’s sleep—now what? In the morning, you’ll likely want to shake off the drowsiness and start your day. Once again, your senses (especially sight) can help! Rather than keeping the curtains drawn and avoiding the sunlight, try to introduce some more light into your mornings. This will help suppress the release of melatonin, waking you up faster.

Additionally, you don’t want to overload any of your senses immediately. Take it easy at first, being mindful of your senses and surroundings. Smell your coffee, and allow the scent to seep in. Savor the flavors of your breakfast. Slowing down a little bit in the morning can help you gear up for a productive day.

Think back to the last time you experienced silence. Was it in the woods? Maybe it was on a flight with your noise-cancelling headphones on. Regardless of the setting, one fact is almost certain: it wasn’t truly silent.

Whether it’s the hum of a refrigerator, the chirping of birds, or the faintest ruffling of leaves, there’s always some sound to break the silence. Noise is virtually impossible to escape. It’s just a fact of life.

Sound is so constant that most people don’t think too much about it. Some noises are more pleasant than others, but beyond that it’s all just, well, noise. But sound isn’t just a question of pleasant and unpleasant—it’s also a question of healthy and unhealthy.

Now before you run off to make your life as quiet as possible, let’s get one thing straight: not all noise is bad. Understanding the links between sound and health will help you keep the negative noise in your life to a minimum, while enjoying all the benefits of music and other positive sounds.

So put those ear plugs back in the drawer (for now) and keep reading!

The Physiology of Hearing

Any discussion of sound and noise should start with hearing. And to talk about hearing, you have to talk about ears.

The ear is divided into three portions: outer, middle, and inner. Each plays a vital part in transforming sounds from your environment into electrical impulses that your brain can interpret. A sound’s journey starts in the outer ear, which includes the visible portions of the ear on the head (aka the auricle or pinna), as well as the outer ear canal.

The auricle works like a funnel. It captures sound waves from your environment and brings them into the ear canal. Once they’re in the canal, the waves are amplified as they are channeled to the eardrum. And that takes us to the middle ear.

The eardrum, or tympanic membrane, is a layer of connective tissue and skin that separates the outer ear from the middle ear. When sound waves hit the eardrum, it begins to vibrate. Those vibrations cause a series of tiny bones, collectively called ossicles, to move. As these bones move, they amplify the sound waves.

A sound wave’s journey ends in the inner ear. That’s where the waves are channeled into the cochlea, a fluid-filled, spiral-shaped organ. The sound waves set the cochlear fluid into motion, which in turn moves thousands of nerve endings. These nerves convert the vibrations of the sound wave into electrical impulses that are then relayed to, and interpreted by, the brain.

If this seems like a complicated process, that’s because it is! And there’s a lot that can go wrong—especially when loud noises are involved. But, as it turns out, the negative effects of certain noises extend far beyond the physiological process of hearing.

Noise Pollution: The Woes of City Living

If you live anywhere near a city, you’re probably familiar with the concept of light pollution. Noise pollution, on the other hand, is talked about far less. But its effects are just as widespread—and the health risks it poses are far greater.

So what is noise pollution? In short, it’s the long-term presence of dangerously loud noises (usually in urban areas).

The definition above requires some unpacking. For starters, what qualifies as a dangerously loud noise? Sound intensity, or volume, is measured in decibels. The hum of a refrigerator, for instance, clocks in at roughly 40 decibels. An air conditioning unit, 55 decibels. In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (commonly called OSHA) requires employers to implement hearing-protection programs if a workplace is louder than 85 decibels.

But you don’t have to operate a jackhammer for a living to be regularly exposed to sounds over that 85 decibel threshold. In certain cities in India, traffic sounds alone exceed 85 decibels. And in the recovery wings of some US hospitals, the ambient volume can reach over 90 decibels. (Not exactly a peaceful healing environment.)

Toxic Noise: The Mental and Physical Effects of Noise

If there’s one takeaway from the previous section, it’s this: life is noisy. Cities are noisy. And the world is only growing louder. So what? Aside from possibly damaging your hearing—a serious health risk on its own—long-term exposure to noise pollution can impact your health in a number of ways.

And the adverse health effects of noise can start at just 50 decibels. If you’re frequently exposed to sounds above that threshold, your blood pressure might start to creep up. Take the volume up a few notches and you may be at higher risk for heart disease.

Those are just the physical effects of noise pollution—let’s take a look at the mental effects.

One of the most obvious effects of noise pollution is decreased sleep time and quality. It’s pretty straightforward: the noisier it is, the worse you’re going to sleep. Poor sleep has physical ramifications (you’ll feel tired), but it can also heighten your feelings of anxiety and increase your irritability.

Noise pollution can also make it difficult to focus—both in the office and at school—and increases anxiety. This can, in turn, increase your sensitivity to noise—creating a spiraling feedback loop.

Reclaiming Noise: Soundscapes and Other Sonic Experiments

Now you know that noise pollution often refers to the endless cacophony of traffic, construction, and general loudness present in most urban areas. But what if those sounds (or others in your neighborhood) were replaced by soothing ones? If blaring horns increase your anxiety, could, say, a birdsong lessen it?

Fortunately, you don’t have to rely on speculation. Various public officials, musicians, and sound engineers have followed that exact train of thought and implemented helpful soundscapes into public spaces.

A soundscape is basically an intentionally selected soundtrack played within a space. The soundtrack could be made up of anything. You can choose classical music, the sound of a bubbling stream, or, in the case of one California city, birdsong. In Lancaster, California, the mayor approved the installation of speakers along a portion of the main road. These speakers constantly played a mix of music and birdsong. Within a year, crime was down by 15 percent.

In London, a similar speaker system, which played only classical music, was deployed at a subway station with high rates of crime. The results were similar: crime rates fell.

How Music Affects Your Health

After all this talk about the negative effects of noise, one question is probably on your mind: what about music? But don’t worry, you can file music under “good noise.”

People love to tout the benefits of listening to classical music: it’s good for your brain, it’s good for your baby, it’s good for your dog, and so on. All of these may be true, but let’s take a look at why.

Music engages multiple areas of the brain, including some not associated with hearing and auditory processing. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, researchers have been able to see music’s effect on the brain in real time. As individuals listen to music, it stimulates activity in the areas of the brain associated with memory, movement, and emotion.

Perhaps this increased brain activity is what led to the popular notion that classical music makes you smarter. It’s hard to quantify the effect of music on intelligence, though. But here’s what we do know:

  • Listening to music can cause the body to release dopamine, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters that help regulate mood
  • Music can help reduce anxiety
  • Listening to classical music and jazz can help alleviate down feelings
  • Music can help you feel energized

These health benefits and others have led to the development of music therapy.

Music Therapy Connects Sound and Health

Music affects health in a number of ways, leading health professionals in a number of fields to put the positive effects of music to good use. These practices, used in fields as varied as physical therapy to psychological counseling, are referred to as music therapy.

In short, music therapy refers to the use of music (both listening and playing) by a licensed professional to achieve certain outcomes in a clinical setting. It’s a wide field and, as more discoveries are made, it’s only growing wider.

You might be familiar with music therapy as a form of mental-health treatment, as it often appears in mainstream media and pop culture. And it’s true: music can help individuals manage anxiety, mood, and more. However, you’re likely less familiar with music therapy as a form of physical therapy.

One surprising use case for music therapy is helping stroke patients. If an individual recovering from a stroke has lost their ability to speak, they may be able to sing. As they practice singing, the patients can work to regain some of the motor and cognitive functions required for speech.

A similar approach can be used to help patients with Parkinson’s Disease. In these cases, the rhythmic qualities of music can help some patients with movement.

Making the Most of Sound and Health in Your Life

It’s impossible—or at least incredibly impractical—for most people to avoid noise pollution altogether. So, what’s the next best thing?

Be mindful of the noise in your life.

If you live just off of a busy intersection, you may want to invest in some ear plugs. They could be the difference between a good night’s sleep and hours of tossing and turning. If you work in a noisy environment, definitely protect your hearing. Also try to take time for meditation and other quiet activities to balance out your noise exposure.

But don’t be afraid to throw some headphones on from time to time and listen to old favorites, new tunes, or even some birdsong mixed with classical music. All at a safe volume, of course!

Exercise changes your body in many ways, some of which you can see in the mirror. The number on the scale may shift a bit and your clothes may start to fit better with each mile (or kilometer) you walk, jog, or swim. These scale and non-scale victories might be how you measure the success of your exercise routine, but have you ever considered the cellular benefits of exercise?

Your cells are the starting point for all the changes that regular exercise can bring. And there are many cellular benefits of exercise that can lead to full-body transformations. Cardiovascular and strength training exercises affect cells throughout your body. From your heart and brain to the white blood cells of your immune system, your cellular health is optimized when you exercise.

Cardio: It’s Not Just for Your Heart

Classic cardiovascular exercises send blood pumping and elevate your heart rate. You might add cardio to your training to build your stamina and endurance. But you’ll be doing more than that. Cardio can be a cellular health exercise, too.

Several cell types respond to cardiovascular exercise (cardiac cells included). Cellular health is supported by the quick, heart-pounding movements of cardio. Check out how cells all over your body respond to this fast-paced form of exercise:

Cardiac Cells

Let’s start with the cells closest to the action of cardio exercise. Cardiac make up your heart tissue. Your heart is essentially a super muscle, with an impressive compression force that pushes blood out to your entire body.

The muscle cells in your heart are highly specialized, and they don’t regenerate nearly as often as the other cells in your body (only about one percent of heart cells renew themselves every year). But there is a way to support cardiac cells and optimize their regeneration—exercise, cardio to be exact.

A 2018 study of mice helped scientists draw a link between cardio exercise and heart cell growth. Mice are frequently used as model organisms for human biology research. Mouse biology is very close to human biology and their genes work in many of the same ways human genes do.

Researchers found that mice with access to a treadmill in their enclosures chose to run approximately five kilometers every day. Their heart health was monitored and the scientists administering the experiment used DNA markers to track the growth of cardiac cells.

The results were spectacular, and favorable for the mice that had access to a treadmill. Mice who exercised made more than four times the number of new cardiac cells than their non-exercising counterparts.

This study helped cement the cellular benefits of exercise for your heart cells. So, if you have access to a treadmill (or a pair of running shoes and the open road) try putting in a few miles (or kilometers) the next time you want to focus on cellular health exercise.

Brain Cells

Anecdotally, many people believe you can train your brain like any other muscle in your body. It’s not a completely accurate statement since there are no muscle fibers in your brain. But if the goal of brain training is to strengthen the connections between neurons and build new neural networks, then exercise can definitely help whip your brain cells into shape.

Neurons, like muscle cells, can change as you exercise. Increased blood flow to the brain during exercise creates an oxygen-rich environment that your neurons thrive in. Extra oxygen and the release of neurotransmitters during exercise foster the growth of brain cells and the development of new neural pathways. You need these new neuronal connections to keep your brain “flexible” and to support your ability to learn new skills and make memories.

So, in a way, cardio exercises actually work out your brain, too. Movements that ramp up your heart rate are simultaneously stimulating your brain cells to grow and create new connections. Brain cells respond to heart-pumping exercise much like your large muscle groups respond to strength training—they grow!

Immune Cells

If you’re looking to mobilize the cells of your immune system, try to crank out a sweat session a couple times per week. Your white blood cells (WBCs) respond to exercise by increasing their circulation in the bloodstream. More WBCs in circulation means your immune system is primed and ready to take on germs that dare make an appearance.

The effects of exercise on immunity are well documented. You temporarily initiate your body’s immune response when you exercise. This allows your body to keep joint aches and soreness to a minimum after you work out.

With regular exercise you’ll experience a slight uptick in the number of WBCs that enter your bloodstream and stay in circulation. As a result, people who exercise regularly have been shown to experience fewer seasonal bugs and colds.

This phenomenon occurs only when regular, moderate exercise is performed. Consistent days of high-intensity exercise can trigger the opposite response from immune cells. “Overtraining syndrome” is the decline in immune performance that some ultra-marathoners and triathletes experience during training. Long periods of high-intensity exercises can put your body in a constant state of stress, actually hampering your immunity.

To hit the sweet spot of immune cell support, exercise moderately and consistently. A good way to identify what moderate exercise means for you is to gauge your breathing effort during your workouts. Try to aim for 70 percent of your maximum heart rate (you can calculate your max heart rate by subtracting your age from 220 beats per minute). That’ll keep you in the zone for cellular health and help you stay out of range of potentially damaging exercise intensity.

Telomeres (All Cells)

Cardiovascular movement influences the health of cells more generally, too. That’s the case when it comes to the telomeres that cap the ends of each cells’ chromosomes.

Chromosomes store all the DNA cells need to replicate (make copies of themselves). These chromosomes are used over and over again for multiple replication cycles. Telomeres are repeating segments of DNA that reside at the ends of each chromosome. These telomeres act as buffers to protect the chromosome from incorrect DNA replication.

Over time, telomeres start to shrink as more copies of each chromosome are made. Shortened telomeres lead to cellular aging and eventual death. So, it’s important to preserve the length of telomeres for as long as possible.

That’s where cardiovascular exercise comes into play. Regular cardio can slow the shortening of telomeres and moderate cellular aging. This is because cardiovascular exercise can affect the level of telomere-preserving enzymes in the cell.

The enzyme that protects telomeres from shortening is called telomerase. Exercise has been shown to elevate the amount of telomerase present in cells. And more available telomerase means telomeres are safeguarded from premature shortening.

Telomeres are at the center of the study of aging. While their role in general health and old age is not clear, one thing is certain. Exercise is great for keeping telomere caps from shrinking too soon and can positively affect the health of each of your cells.

More Cellular Health Exercises—Strength Training

Jogging through the neighborhood or riding a stationary bike exercise your cardiovascular system. But another method of exercise involves slower, more concentrated movements. It’s called strength training. Your heart rate won’t climb as high with strength training, but this form of exercise provides many benefits to your muscle cells.

Muscle Cells

Strength training in a gym setting often focuses on entire muscle groups, but the real effect of resistance exercises on muscles can be found at the cellular level. The cellular benefits of exercise for muscle cells begin rather uniquely. Injury to muscle cells during strength training is the launching point for these cellular benefits.

The cells that make up your larger muscle groups are injured (ever so slightly) when you strength train. Resistance exercises—like planks, push-ups, and squats—all create microscopic injuries to individual muscle cells. To repair themselves, muscle cells need to recruit the help of neighboring satellite cells.

Muscle fibers are surrounded by cells waiting to be called up to active duty when muscles are injured. These satellite cells fuse with injured muscle fibers and donate their organelles to help strengthen the muscle cell. Organelles from satellite cells—like mitochondria and nuclei—are valuable additions to muscle fibers. These organelles allow muscle cells to produce more energy and force during contraction.

Without exercise to trigger these micro-injuries, your muscles would never grow and strengthen in this way. Strength training is an important component of any exercise routine because it plays such a critical role in the health and growth of muscle cells.

Reap the Cellular Benefits of Exercise

Noticeable changes in your body and overall health are the reward of exercising regularly. And below the surface of it all, your cells thrive when you exercise. Think of the trillions of cells that make up your body when you are prepping for your next workout.

Shifting the focus of your workouts to the cellular level can help you appreciate how important your efforts are to even the smallest components of your body. Keep up the cardio and add in strength training so every cell in your body can experience the cellular benefits of exercise.