Every office has one: the loud talker, the computer “reactor” (laughs at every gif, gasps at every Tweet), the person who snacks on pretzels every hour of every day. Some people are fine with it—the ones who love working with friends, who can concentrate just as easily in an open plan office as the middle of a crosswalk. They're the lucky ones. But what about the rest of us? With practice, we too can rise above the stress-inducing lip smackers and knuckle crackers.
It may sound silly, but there’s hard evidence that noise does affect people, says Linda Carlson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and oncology at the University of Calgary. While you might feel crazy or high-strung for being bothered by the tapping of someone’s pen or the office whistler who just won’t quit, studies show it’s a valid concern—researchers have found that background office noise can negatively affect performance and efficiency, especially for people more annoyed by the noise.
And it doesn’t stop there. When you get stressed out, your heart beats faster, your pulse rate increases, and your digestive system slows down, says Arline Bronzaft, Ph.D., an environmental psychologist and member of the Council on the Environment of New York City. Day after day, this can lead to permanent damage in the form of high blood pressure, increased waistline, and cardiovascular disease.
You're Not the Only One
If these auditory irritations ring a (super annoying) bell, know you’re not alone: A study of 65,000 people found that more than half of workers were unhappy with office noise. But here’s why it’s worth training yourself to ignore it: Those little noises actually build on each other, raising your stress baseline and making you more likely to snap at the smallest trigger, Carlson says. Think something as simple as an offhand comment or minor disagreement in the conference room.
And even if you can keep from snapping, those little aggravations can have a lasting effect. Say you dread seeing high-pitched Cathy, you hear her terrible voice, and the rest of your day is ruined, says Cortland Dahl, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.
If you can train yourself to ignore it, you can just let the dark cloud of annoyance that is Cathy float by, Dahl explains. Ipso facto, your day isn’t destroyed, and you don’t lash out at your roommate/S.O. as soon as you get home.
But How? I'm Larry David Incarnate
One of the best ways to get to that place is through mindful meditation, says Randye Semple, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. It’s not so much ignoring the noise, as learning to accept the sounds that are happening instead of what you think should be happening (quiet, always). Balancing the tug between reality and your expectations of it—in other words, becoming aware of the whir of the office AC or the noise your coworker makes as he chews, and letting go of the emotional response to it—can help you get a handle on your stress.
Most times we see mindfulness mentioned, we write it off as something that works for other people: yoga teachers, meditation “gurus,” i.e., not us. But research has shown that meditation really can help protect your health. In one study done by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, neuroscientists found that people who practiced mindfulness were able to avoid residual brain activity associated with cues before and after exposure to pain. Translation: Cathy can come and go as she pleases, and you’re able to return to calm much more quickly, Dahl says.
Your Action Plan
To reap the benefits of silence, Carlson recommends starting small, with even five minutes of mindful meditation per day. While total silence isn’t necessary, a quiet meditating environment can definitely help you tap into your inner calm, Dahl says. Sit in a comfortable position, and start with breath awareness, noting the in-and-out flow of breath as it comes into your body, making its way through your nostrils and chest.
The focus on bodily sensations keeps people anchored in the present moment, Carlson says, and the breathing is very rhythmic, which induces a relaxation response. If your mind races, bring it back to your breath, and just focus on staying in the moment.
The feeling of relaxation and quietness may not be immediate, but Carlson says eight weeks of your best effort should create a space of calm for you to drop into. And if you can access that—a brief, private getaway from noise, busyness, and social demands—your baseline level of stress can noticeably decrease, she says. “We talk about stress inoculation. It gives you more reserves to be able to respond to things as they arise, without losing it.”
In other words: Ice chewers, paper rustlers, and collaborative thinkers, do your worst.