Healing Sounds

“The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach.” – Henry Beston, writer and naturalist

It’s a beautiful sunny day as I sit down to write this article. Despite the cool breeze, I can’t help but keep my window open just a bit. My ears enjoy the sound of water bubbling in the bird bath, of the breeze moving through the trees, and of birds singing, chittering, and periodically fussing with each other over rights to a patch of bare ground. This natural soundscape soothes me and draws my attention away from work, giving my mind a welcome break.

My body and mind respond joyfully and effortlessly to sounds of the nature world, so it is no surprise that research backs up this intuitive knowledge. One study found that coronary artery bypass patients showed significantly less anxiety and agitation during removal of the mechanical ventilator when listening to nature sounds (Aghaie et. al., 2014). Another study found that pain scores were significantly lower in hospital patients when listening to nature sounds (Diette, 2003; Saadatmand et. al., 2015). Listening to natural sounds activates the parasympathetic nervous system, inducing relaxation (Annerstedt, 2013; Gould van Praag, 2017); in particular, listening to bird songs has been shown to improve stress recovery (Ratcliffe et. al., 2013) and promote healthy circadian rhythm (Goel, 2006).

As a former wildlife biologist with a lingering penchant for research and statistics, I could continue on, citing study after study on natural soundscapes and nature-based acoustic interventions. As a mental health therapist and ecotherapist, I could wax eloquent on the importance of nature connection for our mental, emotional, and physical health, including regular exposure to natural soundscapes. Indeed, alongside the above-named studies, there are also many studies which explore the negative effects of non-natural urban sounds, such as cars and airplanes, on our minds and bodies.

But instead, I want to offer some reflections as a mother of a wonderful, lively little boy. To say my son keeps me on my toes is an understatement. He is wildly creative, deeply passionate, exquisitely sensitive, and sharp as a tack. He’s been finding loopholes in our household rules since he was five, which I both admire and fear just a little bit. While I love his extraverted intensity, it can also be challenging for him to calm himself down. This is where nature is a huge help. Listening to the sounds of water, gazing at the vast expanse of stars, walking through green forests, and observing a deer’s movements all captivate my son, and his demeanor and energy shift to a calm, contemplative state.

One recent night, my son was having difficulty getting to sleep. His mind was busy and chaotic, and none of his usual tactics were working. This continued night after night, until I finally thought to suggest we fill his room with nature sounds. Oddly enough, I still have an old tape recorder, and so my son selected one of the Environments nature sounds tapes my friend, Jennifer, gave us from her father’s work. After a short discussion about what an audio cassette is and why we can’t connect it to our Bluetooth speaker, we gave it a try. My son loved it, and, in short order, was sound asleep. It’s been that way for weeks now.

What is especially interesting to me, as an ecotherapist, is his definite preference for certain sounds. His favorite is “The Psychologically Ultimate Seashore” because he likes listening to the gulls cawing, and he imagines himself walking and playing along the beach. Curiously, he also prefers Irv Teibel’s work over the nature sounds app on my smartphone. Who would have guessed an audio tape recording would win out over a modern-day, über-sleek device with crystal-clear sound? I think it speaks volumes about the work of Irv Teibel, a true creative visionary whose ideas remain ahead of their time.

Amy Sugeno, LCSW, Clinical Ecotherapist, was a wildlife biologist for over 16 years before becoming a Social Worker. She leads a wide variety of clinical and non-clinical ecotherapy programs and groups, including mindfulness in nature groups and groups for people living with cancer, and regularly gives guest lectures and conference presentations. Additionally, Amy offers Clinical Ecotherapy training workshops and retreats for therapists at the University of Texas School of Social Work and through her own private practice.

Aghaie, B., Rejeh, N., Heravi-Karimooi, M., Ebadi, A., Moradian, S.T., Vaismoradi, M., & Jasper,
M. (2014). Effect of nature-based sound therapy on agitation and anxiety in coronary artery bypass graft patients during the weaning of mechanical ventilation: A randomised clinical trial. International Journal of Nursing Studies. 51(4): 526-538.
Annerstedt, M., Jönsson, P., Wallergård, M., Johansson, G., Karlson, B., Grahn, P. Hansen, A.M.
& Währborg, P. (2013). Inducing physiological stress recovery with sounds of nature in a virtual reality forest–results from a pilot study. Physiol Behav. 118: 240-50.
Diette, G.B., Lechtzin, N., Haponik, E., Devrotes, A., Rubin, H.R. (2003). Distraction therapy
with nature sights and sounds reduces pain during flexible bronchoscopy: a complementary approach to routine analgesia. Chest. 123(3): 941-8.
Goel, N. (2006). An arousing, musically enhanced bird song stimulus mediates circadian
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Gould van Praag, C.D., Garfinkel, S.N., Sparasci, O., Mees, A., Philippides, A.O., Ware, M.,
Ottaviani, C. & Critchley, H.D. (2017). Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sounds. Sci. Rep. 7, 45273.
Ratcliffe, E., Gatersleben, B., Sowden, P.T. (2013). Bird sounds and their contributions to
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Saadatmand V., Rejeh N., Heravi-Karimooi M., Tadrisi S.D., Vaismoradi M., & Jordan S. (2015).
Effects of natural sounds on pain: A randomized controlled trial with patients receiving mechanical ventilation support. Pain Manag Nurs, 16(4): 483-92.

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