Have you ever been in that situation? You’re sitting in your favourite coffee-house, drinking your coffee, preparing your blog or whatever’s engaging your mind and the fire alarm goes off. This happened to me this morning. Interestingly, not only did very few coffee drinkers get out of their seat and start evacuating the building but the people running the coffee-house told everyone to sit back down because they said that it was a false alarm! The thing was: the alarm carried on sounding. After a few minutes, with the staff unable to silence the alarm, they politely asked everyone to evacuate the building while they continued the investigation about what had caused the alarm to sound. Interestingly, people still sat in their seats! What did they know that I didn’t?

This post is not specifically about why people were reluctant to leave their seats when the fire alarm sounded. Rather, this post is about noise and what we can do about it.

As soon as the alarm sounded, my response was to get up and walk towards the exit. The alarm, in a split second, triggered a response in my Protection Zone / System 1 / Limbic System (all three terms are interchangeable). Danger was instantaneously perceived and I responded by getting up and walking out. Whether we got up and walked out or stayed where we were in our seats, the instant reaction to the alarm sound was for our bodies to prime ourselves to take action and make a quick get-away if need’s be. We can, of course, choose not to make a quick get-away, as was the case with many of the customers in the coffee-house, but the instant priming is unavoidable. Adrenalin is released, our pupils widen to let in more light, our muscles are primed to respond and many other freeze, flight of fight responses are initiated.

Our bodies’ Protection Zones are primed whether there is real danger or perceived danger. This is crucial because it might literally be a matter of life or death. There is potentially no time to check whether priming the body to respond is necessary or not and so the priming occurs. When the situation is a non-emergency, like it was this morning for me, then we can cope with the release of adrenalin. The body dissipates the hormonal changes and we return to a relaxed state. However, today’s fast-paced, always on-the-go society has brought a new challenge. That challenge is noise, all the time and it is stimulating the Protection Zone to release adrenalin, all the time.

Noise is all around us and it is constantly stimulating our Protection Zones. So many of us are walking around in a danger / alert state with constant adrenalin release. The fact that our Thinking Zone understands that there is no danger does’t stop the initial hormonal release. The Protection Zone responds first, not second. It doesn’t understand the difference between the real and perceived danger of noise and so it prepares the body in the same way. The response to the alarm in the coffee shop and the sounding of email and text alerts, FaceBook alerts, Tweets, other social media alerts, telephone rings and a whole host of other visual and auditory stimuli that occur throughout our days is the same: danger, prepare to act!

Any one, or even two or three, of these noise stimuli is generally manageable but when there are so many it can easily overwhelm us. If your over a certain age, like I am, you’ll remember a time before mobile phones. There were precious little alerts in our lives other than fire alarms and smoke detectors. When the noise of the alarm sounded, we knew that we had to quickly respond. In today’s world, there has been an exponential increase in noise from a huge variety of sources. Now, our mobile phones, tablets and laptops buzz, ring and display alerts from all manner of apps, throughout the day and possibly throughout the night as well. The result: there’s just too much noise. Too much noise can result in the response that, rather than dealing with all the stimuli, we decide that we simply won’t deal with any of them. It’s all too much!

There is, actually, a link between what I’m writing now and the reason that the majority of people responded by staying in their seats in the coffee shop today. What can happen with continued exposure to noise is what is known as  hedonistic habituation. This is where we get so used to the stimulus, that it no longer provides the ‘kick’ that we need to do something. It’s no longer powerful enough to demand our engagement so we carry on with what we were doing regardless: literally, looking less and less at what is occurring around us.

This morning, while looking through my phone’s settings, I noticed a whole host of alerts (noise, if you like) vying for my attention. The noise bombardment was starting to control me and I didn’t like that. So, I have turned off a whole host of alerts. I’ve also gone through my email subscriptions and unsubscribed myself from all those emails that I wasn’t reading. And there were a lot of emails that I wasn’t reading! The result is a lot less noise in my life and a lot more focus on what I want to manage. I haven’t missed those emails; I haven’t missed those alerts either. May I suggest that you ‘declutter’ the noise around you: perhaps starting with the excessive noise on your phone or perhaps the clutter in your room. Turn off alerts for all but essential apps such as email, text and perhaps Twitter and messenger. You don’t need to know about all your friends’ Facebook status updates at any time. You don’t need to keep that item… and that item… and that item… in your home just in case.

“But what if I might need them?” I hear you cry. The thing is; all those alerts, all those things in your life that are surrounding you ‘just in case’ are simply creating too much noise for your own good. Excessive noise is like working memory. Working memory is the amount of information that we can hold in our memories for thinking. For most people, that’s about 40 bits of information or about five to seven pieces of information. Noise from a stimulus occupies some of that working memory space, as it requires us to deal with it, and the more noise that occurs from an increase in stimuli, the more working memory space is taken up and the fewer bits of information are available for thinking. The result: we reach cognitive overload. Our brains literally can’t take in and process any more information. The Protection Zone emotionally responds – because that’s what it does –  and we feel exasperated  and overwhelmed. The excessive noise has prevented us thinking and we respond with, “Aaaarrghhhhh!”

Techniques that work

It’s a case of letting go. You don’t need to have that noise in your life. Your worth and value isn’t defined by what you have and do: by the status updates from your apps on your phone or by the clutter in your home. It’s possible that you might need that item, one day, but for the majority of times you won’t need to keep it. It’s a pretty safe bet that keeping that item with all the other items you’ve kept, or leaving that app to sound an alert ‘just in case’, is doing more harm than good. Let them go. Declutter the noise of what’s around you. Turn off those alerts, give it away if it’s cluttering your room (because it is!) and enjoy the greater calm and quiet that doing this will bring. Not only will your body thank you for it, health-wise, but you will be in better shape to respond to the alarm when it does sound!