Sound Waves

Iceland (c) Aislinn  Marek 2017

One of my go-to stress-relieving strategies is to listen to the sound of the ocean. For me, being by the sea is my happy space. I love the fresh, pure air; the tang of salt; the vastness; the seemingly infinite spectrum of blues and greens; the sound of the waves crashing.

And it's no accident that sounds of the sea often feature on meditation tracks. The steady flow, to and fro, creates a calm, comforting rhythm, akin to being rocked, and allows our brains some respite from the busy, often chaotic sounds of urban life.

To allow ourselves to let go of our thoughts, to become immersed in the rhythm of the waves, frees us to be in the moment, no longer ruminating or analysing, but just to be.

But why does the sound of the sea have such a calming effect? The constant rhythm of the waves can help to regulate our breathing, as our breath becomes synchronised with the tempo of the waves. Slowing and deepening our breathing, extending our exhalations, helps to stop the flow of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) and stimulate the Vagus nerve, helping us to feel calmer in our body and mind. And it’s one steady stream of noise, rather than a mixture of tones, so the brain is able to relax a little, rather than trying to identify a myriad of noises.

There’s an argument, too, that the sound of the waves can be reminiscent of auditory experiences in the womb. The whooshing of blood flowing through arteries; the world muffled by amniotic fluid. This is why parents often use white noise to soothe babies, to try and emulate this effect. The brain recognises this pulsing sound as safe, soothing, and thus begins to become less alert, less hypervigilant.

But, if you’re not by the sea, or haven’t got a wave recording handy, try holding a sea shell up to your ear to create the sound of waves crashing on the sand. Haven’t got a shell? Just cup your hand to your ear for the same effect.