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Understanding and Dealing with Environmental Stress

Updated on January 6, 2013

Unless you live in a remote part of the world, environmental stress is a fact of life. We may become anxious and irritable, and we may become more vulnerable to physical disorders when confronted by:

  • Noise
  • Crowding
  • Community stressors such as poverty and crime

Here we'll look at each of these issues, how they may be affecting our health, how our perception affects the toll these stressors take, and how to manage the resulting stress.

Noise pollution comes from many sources.
Noise pollution comes from many sources. | Source

Noise

The consequences of enduring elevated sound levels are significant. Obviously, as stress increases, so do workplace accidents, aggression, and anti-social behavior. Beyond the obvious though, studies show that noise stress links to hypertension, heart disease, immune system impairments, and birth defects.

In fact, children have been found to be especially susceptible to chronic loud noise exposure. Studies show that children, because they don't have an adult's ability to differentiate between relevant and non-relevant sound cues, may experience lower reading scores, difficulty with verbal skills, disruption in short-term memory, inability to focus on a task, loss of sleep, increased anxiety, and multiple health complaints.

Perception

What's the difference between a loud train that regularly rattles past your apartment and a rock concert for which you paid good money? The difference is perception. Whereas uncontrollable noise causes stress and health issues, 'self-administered' noise is generally appraised as enjoyable.

Another factor that plays a large role in a person's stress level when confronted with noise, is the potential for control. In a study by David Glass and Jerome Singer, students who were given the ability to control a loud, distracting noise reported less stress than the students who were unable to control the noise.

Crowding

What is the difference between crowding and density? Researchers define population density as the number of people living in a certain area, whereas crowding is a psychological state where people believe they don't have enough room to function as they'd like to.

Crowding only exists in the presence of density, but crowding is not a foregone conclusion of density. It's all in how you look at it.

Perception

If you choose to stand in a large crowd of party-goers, you may not perceive this as crowding. On the other hand, if you want to get away from it all and go camping in the wilderness, then see another camper off in the distance, you may perceive this as crowding.

"A large crowd, taken just after a Muse concert in Paris (not that you can tell). Incredible density of people as they walked slowly to the exit, without a hint of overcrowding."
"A large crowd, taken just after a Muse concert in Paris (not that you can tell). Incredible density of people as they walked slowly to the exit, without a hint of overcrowding." | Source
Where you live can determine your level of community stress.
Where you live can determine your level of community stress. | Source

Community Stress

Additional environmental stressors can be experienced in neighborhoods that include, not only uncontrollable noise and high population density, but also pollution, discrimination, unemployment, crime, and threats of violence.

Several studies reveal that this type of stress, especially when it includes the threat of violence, has its greatest effects on children and adolescents. The links of these types of community stress are obviously found more frequently in socioeconomic challenged neighborhoods. Wealthier people tend to report fewer daily hassles.

Change your situation, or figure out how to cope.
Change your situation, or figure out how to cope. | Source

Coping

Most people confronted by uncontrollable noise tend to try to 'tune out' the noise and focus on voices or other sounds that they deem relevant. This is one form of coping.

But, as we've seen above, the other two vital factors in reducing our stress levels related to noise and crowding are: changing our perception of stressors and finding ways to exhibit control.

If you are simply enduring these stressors, now is a good time to practice problem-focused coping. (See: How to Deal with Stressful Situations.) Some brain-storming alone or with friends may be in order. For instance, after reading about or actually experiencing the health effects of environmental stressors, it's probably time to take stock of your life situation. Ask yourself:

  • Are the reasons I moved into this noisy apartment still as important?
  • Could I pay $100 more per month to live in a quieter setting?
  • If not, could I become a roommate with a quiet person in a quiet atmosphere?
  • Is the great style of this apartment really worth sacrificing my health?
  • If it's really that gorgeous, can I or my landlord install sound-absorbing panels on the walls and ceiling?

And the list goes on. Don't just continue to endure noise, crowding, or violence while your physical health and sanity suffer. It's not worth it.

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