Written by Paul Smith, SVP of Commercial, AdTonos

This past Halloween, we explored the importance of audio when it comes to inspiring dread and, specifically, how horror films use sound to create an atmosphere of fear, tension, and apprehension.

Sound has the power to make us feel: if we consider the range of audio media available to us, from music to podcasts and even the autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) stimuli, it is perhaps no surprise that this can trigger human emotion, from joy to sadness and nostalgia to excitement, but also a range of physiological changes, too.

Mental health disorders have been on the rise globally, with one in six people experiencing mental health problems in the workplace. Employers can and should be doing more to connect with their workforce to offer support and wellbeing initiatives. At AdTonos, we’ve turned to our favourite medium and explored the connection between mental health and audio.

Many of us turn to audio to make ourselves feel better: to calm down, to help us truly experience a feeling, to feel like we belong, to gain understanding on a certain topic – or simply to wallow, which everyone needs every now and again. So let’s explore this very human trait in more detail.

Building connections out of sound

Research reveals that Gen Z often turn to podcasts to make sense of their emotions, while many others turn to ASMR or nature sounds to ease their anxiety.

Anyone can start a podcast. And while it’s often experts, scientists, journalists, comedians, or politicians that run them, sometimes it’s just ‘normal’ people who speak in a way that resonates with us. As popular shows can run on for years, many listeners come to consider these podcast hosts akin to friends, forming “parasocial” (one-sided) relationships.

Many start listening because of a desire to know more on a given topic. But what often happens throughout the long hours of listening to a particular voice, understanding how a person thinks, and in some cases, hearing about the intimate details of their lives – their fears, their anxieties, their wins and their losses –is that listeners come to feel a close, personal connection to them.

Indeed, there are many articles and listicles dedicated to podcasts that make you feel like you’re hanging out with friends, building on this sense that we’re all exploring – and stumbling – through what it means to be human, together.

These voices then – their laughter, their sorrow, and their experiences – become as familiar and comforting as family and friends. But if we think specifically about sounds and how they induce certain feelings – how does this work?

The sound is the signal

systematic review of studies showed that listening to natural sounds, such as waterbird song, and rain made people feel better. The positive effects included a whole range of health benefits, from general mortality rates to birth outcomes, cognitive performance, mental health and stress, and finally, even the rate of a myriad of diseases.

But how? Why?

First of all, because our hearing is linked to our perception of the world around us, audio cues trigger specific behavioural and physiological responses. We know a siren signifies an ambulance or police car, and we know how we need to respond to that. We know an animal growl could mean danger.

There are a couple theories that explore why nature sounds are calming, but there is no definitive answer yet. For example, Attention Restoration Theory suggests that, in contrast to the tiring, constant stimulation of urban environments, natural environments do not demand “directed attention”, creating an atmosphere of relaxation and pleasure. Stress Recovery Theory, on the other hand, suggests that since natural sounds are perceived as less threatening, spending time in a natural environment can elicit stress relief through an autonomic nervous system response.

As everyone’s own experience will impact how they feel about certain environments, there will probably never be a straightforward, single answer but research promisingly shows that stepping outside for a walk or putting on a babbling brook for background noise can decrease stress levels.

Sound solutions

Beyond nature sounds, new audio experiences have emerged to meet demand of anxious listeners: ASMR is generally considered a helpful and accessible method to induce sleep and feelings of calm, and it also lowers the heart rate. This very specific kind of audio – usually a combination of quiet whispering, soft tapping, or quiet, repetitive sounds such as the turning of pages in a book, recorded on high-definition microphones to pick up even the slightest of sound – creates feelings of relaxation and tingling sensations in some people. While stimuli that triggers ASMR can differ from person to person, slower, lower-pitched, more complex sounds tend to be the most effective.

Sleep stories, which grew in popularity throughout the pandemic – downloads of the “Calm” app nearly doubled in the peak of lockdown, and now has over 4 million paid subscribers – work in similar ways, using specific sounds and following specific narratives that help people unwind.

The stories told on these applications differ greatly from what we are used to hearing: there is no plot, no twists and turns, no sudden reveals or cliff hangers. Instead, narratives build atmospheres and use sounds to inspire a deep sense of calm – reminiscent, perhaps, of bedtime stories. The words and sounds used are very carefully chosen: anything that might cause anxiety is left out, including blunt, harsh sounding words and even potentially triggering words such as “crack” and “bolt” or “snake” and “spider”.

Furthermore, there are a number of museumsparks, and organisations that have built on this concept to create interactive audio trails for visitors, using the environment to help people tune into their senses and activate a mindfulness exercise.

Listening in

Through audio, we can build social connections, calm our nerves, lower our heart rates, and quiet our minds. The connection between audio and mental health is clear, and employers should take note of its benefits. How do you use audio across your mindfulness practices?