Trouble Staying Asleep Due to Noise

How nighttime noise causes sleep disturbances, including difficulty falling asleep and trouble staying asleep.

If you've ever suffered through an endless night when you couldn't sleep because of noise, you've experienced firsthand some of the effects and aftereffects of nighttime noise. You lie in bed after a long and stressful day, and you try to ignore the sounds and push them out of your mind, but they nag at you, keeping your body and mind from relaxing into the sweet sleep you so desperately need. If you are finally able to drop off, the noise insistently awakens you again, and again, and after a while you are feeling so frustrated and worried about not being able to sleep that you are not only wide awake, but angry and stressed as well.

Noise that keeps you awake might be from a roommate who keeps a different schedule, or from a neighbor who plays loud music at all hours, or from traffic outside your window. Or you might be on a trip, in a hotel room far from home, and every noise sounds strange and unfamiliar.

Effects of Noise on Sleep

How does noise disturb sleep? There are three primary effects:
  1. Difficulty getting to sleep: Increasing the time it takes to fall asleep.
  2. Trouble staying asleep: Waking you up during the night.
  3. Altering the stages of sleep: You don't sleep as deeply, and you get proportionately less REM sleep.

Different people have different tolerances to noise when they're trying to sleep, but on average a sound exposure level above 55 dBA causes a sleeping person to awaken. However, even if a noise doesn't fully wake you up, it can cause other disturbances as you sleep. You have more restless body movements, your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure increases, your breathing changes. These physiological effects are seen with sound exposure levels as low as 40 dBA.

Because loud or unusual noises often signaled danger in the lives of our ancestors, we have inherited from them an automatic "fight or flight" response to noise, which releases energizing stress hormones to prepare us to take emergency action. This response occurs in a primitive part of the brain (the amygdala), and triggers stress hormone secretions even when we're asleep. If this happens repeatedly, over time our stress hormone levels can become chronically elevated, a condition which is associated with a wide range of negative health effects.

Effects of Lack of Sleep

In addition to the direct effects of noise, there are secondary effects from the inability to sleep, whether the trouble staying asleep is due to noise or to other causes of insomnia. These aftereffects are very familiar to most of us:
  • Drowsiness and fatigue
  • Depression and/or irritability (including a reduced tolerance for daytime noise)
  • Reduced concentration, leading to a higher risk of errors and accidents
  • Reduced immunity to illness

Further, to combat the drowsiness due to lack of sleep, many people use stimulant drugs, then resort to sedatives to sleep at night. The chain of effects from noise goes on.

Sleeping with Noise

If you can't sleep at night because noise is keeping you awake, of course the ideal solution is to eliminate the noise if possible. But often that's just not feasible, or it can take some time to accomplish. You might consider adding soundproofing to your bedroom as a long-term approach.

In the meantime, if you need to sleep in a noisy environment, you don't have to go defenseless! Arm yourself with the tools that will give you a better chance at that well-earned sleep.

Read more: Help for sleeping with noise

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