Chapter 13

Stress and the Environment

As mentioned in an earlier chapter, nothing outside of us will automatically cause us to turn on the stress response unless we choose to let it. Stress activation always depends upon how an event is interpreted by how it is perceived. However, there are aspects of our day-to-day environment that can more easily be perceived as being stressful. These are called environmental stressors. An environmental stressor is something that is in our environment that can easily be perceived as annoying, distracting, uncomfortable or unpleasant. Environmental stressors don’t usually involve people, but relate to the conditions of the physical environment. Loud noise can be an example of an environmental stressor. 

Most of the time, environmental stressors are still a matter of taste. For one person, going to a rock concert and sitting right by the speakers is perceived as pleasurable and time well spent. To another, this experience is perceived to be as horrible as anything imaginable. Again, the perception is the important component of whether or not an environmental factor is perceived as being a stressor. Some common examples of potential environmental stressors, in addition to loud noises, might include air pollution, tobacco smoke, overcrowding, disasters (natural and man-made, climate conditions, the level of lighting or the colors of a room, nearby bugs & insects, poor ergonomics, and even the arrangement of furniture or the clutter that fills a room where you are working. Even a room which is too warm or too cold can be a potential environmental stressor. All of these external environmental conditions can play a role in our levels of comfort or discomfort.

Moving a step further with environmental stress, the Stimulus-Response theory explains that when we find ourselves in a particular environment and we experience something painful while in that environment, the environment may get associated with the pain. The two get linked together. When this occurs, the result can be that we perceive the environment itself as unpleasant. Ivan Pavlov and his dog demonstrated how the mere sound of a bell could lead to salivation when it was associated with food which automatically produced the response. A couple of examples demonstrate how this stimulus-response linking might happen with humans similar to Pavlov’s dog. A woman who becomes extremely sick (morning sickness) during the early stages of her pregnancy spends time shopping in a particular shopping mall. Repeated exposure to the mall combined with her morning sickness may trigger the unpleasant response of feeling sick each time she goes to the mall in the future. A shopping mall wouldn’t, under normal conditions, cause someone to feel morning sick, but when one condition is paired with another, and pain or discomfort is involved, the first becomes a trigger for a response of discomfort. Another example is the negative feelings that people have toward a doctor or dentist’s office. Because pain has occurred there on an earlier occasion, there is an association that got pain linked to the office. As a result, the person naturally avoids going to the dentist’s office. He wants to avoid the potential pain. Recall that the stress response is activated anytime we want to avoid a potential pain.

Managing Environmental Stressors

It is possible to take a proactive approach toward environmental stressors. If something is not quite right in your environment, and you have the ability to do something about it, act assertively to reduce or eliminate that item from your environment. If you can’t do anything about the stressor, like the loud noise of thunder, for example, then do what is necessary to remove yourself from the presence of the unpleasant event or do as much as possible to adapt to is and think differently about it so it isn’t perceived as painful or uncomfortable. The following are some additional recommendations for reducing or eliminating environmental stressors:

  • Spend as much time as possible where you work or study in fresh air. Weather permitting, open up the windows. If this isn’t possible, or if pollution levels are unfavorable, make sure there is adequate ventilation or air filters to clean the air. You may want to include plants where the air is too dry. Plants can help to absorb pollutants in the air as well raise the amount of fresh oxygen into the air. They also add to the visual appeal of one’s environment.
  • Spend time outdoors in the fresh air and get as much of your light from natural light. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is known to occur in those who don’t get sufficient amounts of sunlight. The National Mental Health Association says this about SAD: “SAD is a mood disorder associated with depression episodes and related to seasonal variations of light.” Melatonin, which is a sleep-related hormone, is secreted in increased levels in the dark. An increase in this hormone may lead to symptoms similar to depression.
  • Reduce or ban all tobacco smoke. Tobacco smoke is banned in most areas, but if you find yourself frequently in a place where tobacco smoke isn’t banned, do what you can to make it that way. Consistent exposure to tobacco smoke is known to cause respiratory problems, especially in those people who already struggle with respiratory concerns like asthma.
  • Remove clutter in your work or study environment. Look round the room and decide which things are really important and which things can be tossed or recycled. Be honest with yourself. Ask yourself if you will really read that magazine lying on the table or if you will finish the crafts project you started. Similarly, assess how you have arranged your furniture. Decide what you really need and get rid of those unnecessary items that are just making your room feel too crowded.
  • Try to create your study and working environments in colors that are pleasing to you. Some colors are known to be more relaxing like dark blue and violet while others can have an opposite effect like red or orange. Color preference is very individualistic, however, so choose to decorate your room with colors that work for you.
  • Design your computer workstation and your office furniture so you don’t struggle with tension and pain from bad posture, eye strain, back pain, or other symptom of poor ergonomics. Your computer monitor and keyboard should be in a place where neither creates discomfort from continued use. If you notice pain, look at possible ways for making adjustments.
  • Try to reduce or eliminate background noise. Turn off the television, radio, and other sources of extra sound where possible. Find ways to spend time in silence or if there are low-level noises in the background, select some peaceful music to cover it up. When noise comes from neighbors, let them know that you are uncomfortable with their behavior in a pleasant, yet assertive way. Ask them to turn down the music, decrease the volume of noise in general, or try moving to a different place to relieve you of the undesirable noise.

Research Highlight

A research team at Cornell University headed by Professor G.W. Evans undertook a study of stress and noise from open offices, and their findings were published in October 2000 in the Journal of Applied Psychology. In this study, 40 female clerical workers (with an average age of 37) were examined for three hours in one of two situations: a quiet office or an office with typical open-office-type low-intensity noise. The researchers measured levels of stress hormones, how much stress the participants reported, and how the participants attempted to work and complete tasks.

While some stress hormone levels remained unchanged, urinary levels of the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), which is released from the adrenal glands in the classic "fight or flight" stress reaction, were elevated in the workers exposed to low-level noise. The workers in the noisy office also made fewer attempts to solve a difficult task (an insolvable puzzle), indicating a decrease in motivation. Further, workers exposed to the low-level noise made fewer ergonomic adjustments to their workspaces (such as adjustment of chairs, footrests, or document holders) than the group in the quiet office. Making fewer ergonomic adjustments can lead to a fixed or perhaps inappropriate posture, increasing the workers' risk for development of a musculoskeletal injury.

Interestingly, the workers exposed to low-level noise did not report more stress than the workers in the quiet surroundings. This finding suggests that increased stress levels and increased stress hormone levels may occur even when you are not consciously aware of the stress. Since elevated stress hormones can worsen many medical conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes, the medical effects of this stress may be as great as with perceived psychological stress.

Reported on


Stress Management through Music


“I think I should have no other mortal wants, if I could always have plenty of music. It seems to infuse strength into my limbs and ideas into my brain. Life seems to go on without effort, when I am filled with music.” George Eliot


Music and Mood

Think about any scary movie that you have ever seen. Consider the most frightening part of that movie and everything about that extremely terrifying scene. Now consider this what would happen if you removed the music that is playing during the chilling sequence. What happens to the movie? Suddenly it becomes far less frightening. The dramatic music creates the mood of fear.

Music creates the mood for many settings. People who design the “feel” of an environment are very aware of the powerful effect of music. Music sets the tone for sporting events, parades, restaurants, shopping centers, television shows, advertisements, dances, and many other places and activities. The music selection is usually precise and purposeful. Those who are in charge of the music select specific types of music that help create an atmosphere appropriate for that setting. When you are shopping at a major department store, you may not be aware of the music that is playing, but the music has usually been specially selected for shoppers to encourage them to spend more time enjoying their experience shopping. If you go to an all-you-can-eat restaurant, you will observe different music than if you went to a very nice restaurant. In the all-you-can-eat place, the music is usually louder and peppier because the owner wants you to hurry up, eat, and get out of there. In the nice restaurant, the music is generally soft and peaceful encouraging you to stay and order more food because you don’t pay for it until you are finished.

The Effects of Music

Even though the term music therapy is fairly new, the practice of using music to heal can be traced back to antiquity. The healing power of music therapy is even recorded in the Bible: "And whenever the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand; so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him." (1 Samuel, 16:23).

Another interesting example, in our earlier history is written about the Russian Envoy Count Kayserling. The Count suffered with miserable insomnia. To deal with the problem, he asked Johann Goldberg, a local musician to play for him at night. Goldberg seized his harpsichord and played a piece of music written especially for the Count by Johann Sebastian Bach. The Count had informed Bach about his terrible problems with sleeplessness. He asked Bach to compose some music that might help him relax and get to sleep.

      Soon Goldberg was playing the music that Bach had composed for the Count’s problem every time the count was having one of his sleepless nights. The Count had Goldberg installed in a room nearby ready to play at the Count’s beckon call. The Count was so happy with the positive effects of this music that he gave Bach a lavish gift of gold. We know this relaxing composition by Bach today as the Goldberg Variations.

Music therapy has been used throughout history as a way of coping with difficult situations. One such example is that of the people who were forced into Auschwitz, a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. People being separated from family and friends, being forced into slave labor, watching many people around them executed and waiting for their turn to die created an extremely stressful situation. The people in these camps seemed to have little to live for, yet many remained strong, and endured the trial. When asked what kept them going many would respond that music was one source of strength. It seemed to bind the prisoners together. There is a story of a group that was in the changing room for the gas chamber, and they were heard singing the Czechoslovakian national anthem and then a Hebrew song, “Hatikvah,” as a way to give each other strength for what was ahead of them. Music was a way for them to find peace, even in war and death.

Don Campbell, teacher and researcher in the fields of music, sound, health, and learning and founder and former director of the Institute for Music, Health, and Education in Boulder, Colorado writes of others throughout history who have shown evidence of the importance and power of music:

  • Early Greeks thought there was a clear connection between music and mathematics. Over the entrance to Plato's Academy at Athens there was an inscription that could be translated: "No one may enter who does not know earth's rhythm." . . . in the belief that what held all things together was music.
  • Hindus believe there is a seed sound at the heart of creation, the Nada Braham, the tone from which God made the world, "which continues to sound at the bottom of creation, and which sounds through everything."
  • A passage in the Tibetan Book of the Dead describes the essence of reality as "reverberating like a thousand distant thunders."
  • Pythagoras's asserted in the fifth century B.C. that, "There is geometry in the humming of the strings. There is music in the spacings of the spheres."
  • Plotinus: "All music, based upon melody and rhythm, is the earthly representative of heavenly music."
  • Lao-tzu spoke of the Great Tone that is "the tone that goes beyond all unusual imagination."
  • Ancient writings are filled with testimonies to music's power to perform miracles of healing or transformation, whether in ancient Greece or Rome, in the Bible, or other ancient texts.
  • Rumi, thirteenth century Islamic master, wrote:
    We have heard these melodies in
    But while we are thus shrouded by gross earthly veils,
    How can the tones of the dancing spheres reach us?
  • To get in touch with music that allows access to the unconscious and inner depths, one must listen to the masterpieces of baroque, classical, romantic and impressionist composers who have encoded many of their works with messages of divine inspiration and unity. Great compositions offer those who listen, keys to personal transformation and the understanding of wholeness.

David Tame, another musicologist, spoke of music in his book the Secret Power of Music in these ways:

  To the question, "Does music affect man's physical body?" modern research replies in the clear affirmative. There is scarcely a single function of the body that cannot be affected by musical tones. The roots of the auditory nerves are more widely distributed and possess more extensive connections than those of any other nerves in the body. Investigation has shown that music affects digestion, internal secretions, circulation, nutrition and respiration. Even the neural networks of the brain have been found to be sensitive to harmonic principles.

   . . . Music affects the body in two distinct ways: directly, as the effect of sound upon the cells and organs, and indirectly, by affecting the emotions, which then in turn influence numerous bodily processes.

   Dr. T. C. Singh, head of the Botany Department at
Annamalia University, India, has conducted research into the effects of music on plants. He discovered not only that constant exposure to classical music caused plants to grow at twice their normal speed, but also went on to find what seemed to be one of the main causes of this accelerated growth. In his experiments, the violin was found to be one of the most life-enhancing instruments of all.

   Yet, perhaps the most interesting and significant of all of Dr. Singh's findings was that later generations of the seeds of musically stimulated plants carried on the improved traits of greater size, more leaves, and other characteristics. Music had changed the plants' chromosomes!

   To listen to Handel's Messiah is not to debate intellectually about religion; it is to feel and become one with that surging inner flame of devotion. . . . It is the essence of this state that enters into us, tending to mold and shape our own consciousness into conformity with itself.

Several additional studies reflect the interesting and powerful effect of music. One study done by Dorothy Retallack looked to see if plants responded to music similarly to how they respond to light. Plants respond to light in an interesting way. If a plant is place on a window sill where direct sunlight will shine, its flowers, after a period of time, will turn in the direction of the window and toward the sunlight. If the plant is turned so the flowers face away from the window, after a time, the flowers will again turn in the direction of the sun. Certainly many things are involved here, but one thing is certain, the plant seems to have a preference for sunlight. They respond positively to the light. Dr. Retellack wanted to see if the plants would respond in a similar way to types of music.

Six separate chambers were used with music speakers and similar plants in each chamber. Each plant received the same amount of water, light, and nourishment. The only difference for each plant was the type of music that was played in each of the chambers.

The first plant chamber had country & western music playing for a period of time. The plants exposed to this type of music didn’t appear to respond at all. The second chamber of plants had the music of Claude Debussy playing continuously. The plants in this chamber responded by leaning away from the speakers by about 30%. The plants didn’t appear to have a preference for this type of music. The plants in the third chamber were exposed to Jazz music. They responded by leaning toward the speakers by about 10%. The fourth chamber had Indian Sitar music playing. The plants in this chamber were reported to respond by leaning toward the speakers by about 75%. These plants appeared to show a great preference for this type of music. The next chamber had adagio movements of baroque music continuously playing. The plants in this chamber responded the same was as those exposed to the Indian Sitar music. Dr. Retellack reported that those plants that were closest to the speakers actually wrapped some of their branches around the speakers. The final chamber of plants was exposed to the music of Led Zeppelin, a rock and roll group from the 1970’s. The results showed that these plants, after a short period of time withered and died.

What can music do for humans? According to Sari Harrar, “Clinical studies and anecdotal evidence from music therapists suggest that the sound of music helps to ...

  • manage pain
  • improve mood and mobility
  • reduce the need of pain relievers and sedatives accompanied with surgery
  • relieve anxiety
  • lower blood pressure
  • ease depression
  • enhance concentration and creativity

He continues by suggesting that “music has the power to soothe the savage–stressed out–beast.”

 Dr. Gaynor says, “Listening to music is proven to reduce stress.” According to a Japanese study, stress hormone levels (ACTH and cortisol) were measured in surgical patients just before anesthesia was administered. Patients who listened to soothing music immediately before, showed a drop in stress hormones by more than 50 percent. The opposite happened to those who did not listen to music. Their hormone levels showed a rise of more than 50 percent. They concluded that any music a patient finds pleasurable will reduce levels of stress.”

In a Chicago newspaper, Ronald Kotulak writes,” What is it that touches us so deeply when we listen to the music we love? It could be that we are listening to an inner voice attached to one of humankind’s earliest languages. Whatever the solution to the mystery, this Chicago musician and songwriter finds nothing calms a screaming infant better than the songs he and his wife present to their child”

Kotulak’s article later continued, “Almost everybody enjoys a beautiful melody. It takes root into the brain, priming the imagination, arousing passions, sedating anxieties and inspiring the body to move in rhythm. A person who is born deaf and never has heard a note can still learn to dance by feeling the vibrations music makes”

Further studies show that music has measurable physical effects on the body. Certain kinds of music have been found to lower heart rates, respiratory rates, blood pressure, and increase tranquil mood states; regulate heart and breathing rate and increase oxygen levels in the blood. For individuals with hypertension and related conditions, music can be included with other therapies to promote health. One study with individuals in surgery showed that patients exposed to music reported significantly lower pain intensity and required less morphine compared to a control group. Subjects with osteoarthritis reported less arthritic pain when music was played compared to a control group who simply sat quietly. People undergoing surgery have been shown to require fewer anesthesias, awaken from anesthesia more quickly and with fewer side effects, and heal more rapidly when healing music is played before, during and after the surgical procedure.

Individuals suffering from depression need less medication and have more success in psychotherapy when music is added to their course of treatment. Grief, loneliness, even anger; are all managed much better when appropriate music is added to therapy. Music may be used to reduce anxiety before and during surgery. Autistic children and children diagnosed with brain damage all react positively to music therapy.

Medical Resonance Therapy Music

One of the developments in the use of music therapy is Medical Resonance Therapy Music, or MRT-Music. This music was composed by a German Musicologist named Peter Huebner. (MRT-Music) is based on the principle of resonance, which means that the precise harmony contained in a particular musical structure resonates inside the human organism, from the ears to the brain and from the brain to the various organs. The harmony inside the music stimulates the re-setting of the biological order and it harmonizes and regenerates the whole body, bringing it gradually towards regeneration. In this way it also becomes an important tool for prevention of disease.

For years now there have been studies on Medical Resonance Therapy Music. These studies have been done on people who have cancer, skin diseases, high-risk pregnancies; it has been studied on people in crisis situations, and people going through surgery.

One study looking at skin disease had 68 patients – 28 with neurodermatitis and 20 psoriasis patients in experimental groups, and 10 neurodermatitis and 10 psoriasis patients in control groups. Each of the patients ranged in age from 18 to 60 years old. They all stayed in the hospital and received the conventional treatments for their afflictions. None of these patients had received MRT-Music prior to the study.

The members of the experimental group received three 30-minute treatments of MRT-Music each day divided into morning, noon, and night, while the members of the control group were simply asked to find a way to relax (i.e. read, walk, and paint) during those times. At the beginning of the study all members had similar blood pressure and heart rates.

The researchers found that those who were receiving the MRT-Music had a lowering of blood pressure, and heart rate, while those in the control group showed no great change in those areas. The psoriasis patients in the experimental group showed an 86% average decrease in their stimulus to scratch. Those in the control group only reduced their desire to scratch by an average of 29% in the same time frame. In the overall degree of the sickness those who had psoriasis in the experimental group had a reduction of the sickness by 65%, and those in the control group only 20%. Those in the experimental neurodermatitis group had a reduction in the degree of sickness by 41%; those in the control group only went down 12%.

They concluded that the effects of the MRT-Music compared to that of the control group had a greater reduction in sickness, that the stimulus to scratch was reduced and there was a greater reduction in heart rate and blood pressure. Finally, they reported that with continued use of MRT-Music the conditions also continued to improve.

Another study was done in Minsk on MRT-Music done on women with high risk pregnancies. In the course of five years, 140 women with high-risk pregnancy were individually studied. Women were studied at the following stages of pregnancy: up to 12 weeks, 18 to 20 weeks, 28 to 30 weeks and 37 to 38 weeks of pregnancy and for pre-labor preparation when the first symptoms of labor appear. The different MRT-Music courses contained approximately eight treatments of about 40 to 60 minutes each.

These researchers found that with continued use of MRT-Music, the anxiety levels of each woman decreased. The women also had an increased threshold of pain sensitivity in labor, and a reduced labor time. The heart activity of the fetus was increased. The number of interrupted pregnancies was reduced by about half, and there were no harmful side effects observed in the study.

Which music is best for Stress Management?

What is the best type of music for reducing stress or for helping create a relaxing environment? Of prime importance is that you enjoy the music that is playing. If you are listening to a nice composition by Vivaldi and you don’t find it enjoyable in the least, it probably won’t have any positive relaxing effects. There are several genres of music that can be ideal for relaxation. Classical music is one of the best types of music for relaxation and meditation. One type of early classical music that seems to be the most effective in reducing the stress response is music from the Baroque musical period. Some common composers of the baroque period include Bach, Haydn, Handel, Corelli, Albinoni, Telemann, Brahms, Vivaldi, and Mozart. Composers of the Baroque period seemed to know something special about the human body and the positive effect music has on it.

Researchers who have studied the effects of classical music have found that when people are connected to an EEG machine, which records brainwave activity, and listening to this music, they had similar brain wave activity to those commonly found in meditators. They specifically looked at the adagio movements of the Baroque compositions and found that these portions of the baroque music, that had beats of about 60 beats per minute, appeared to be the most relaxing and produced heightened levels of alpha brainwave activity similar to what occurs during deep relaxation, hypnosis, and meditation. The music of Mozart has become such a popular healing tool that the treatment has become known as the Mozart Effect.

A very well-known example of an adagio speed of baroque music is Pachelbel’s Canon in D. This beautiful piece of music is commonly used at weddings and other special occasions. Whether it is Pachelbel’s Canon, Mozart's Baroque compositions or something by Brahms, classical music, with its slow measured pace or brisk staccato rhythm, lends itself well to relaxation. Whether played on the piano, violin, and harp or with a full orchestra, it's well worth the time to listen and absorb its vibrations.

New Age music is another genre that has grown into a well-accepted and effective type of music for stress management. There are sub-classifications of new age music including New Instrumental, Space Music, Music for Meditation, Ambient Music, Jazz, Fantasy, World Fusion, Celtic Music, and Acoustic Guitar, among others. Commonly, these types of music use a wide variety of instruments and are usually done without vocals. Music labels like Windham Hill and Narada started the big movement of quiet, meditative music, officially called New Age Music. Other labels like Real Music, Oreade Music, New Earth Records, Sattva Music, Hearts Of Space, Meistersinger Music, Chacra Alternative Music, Oasis Productions, Miramar, and Earthtone Records distribute this type of music.

Steven Halpern, one of the first official New Age music composers, described New Age music as music which does not mainly build on the principle of tension and release (like most music in general) but rather functions like wall paper, which can create a positive, even healing atmosphere. Since Halpern, a very long list of excellent composers is now available for every type of relaxing activity from yoga and deep meditation to increasing energy after a draining day. The following is a short list of both classical and new age authors whose works you could add to your music library for the purpose of relaxation.


Composers whose music could be used for reducing stress and relaxing:


Ÿ         Albinoni

Ÿ         Bach

Ÿ         Brahms

Ÿ         Cortelli

Ÿ         Handel

Ÿ         Haydn

Ÿ         Mozart

Ÿ         Pachelbel

Ÿ         Telemann

Ÿ         Vivaldi

Instrumental/New Age/Acoustic, etc.

Ÿ         Alex DeGrassi

Ÿ         Carlos Nakai

Ÿ         Catherine Marie Charlton

Ÿ         Chris Botti

Ÿ         David Arkenstone

Ÿ         David Benoit

Ÿ         David Lanz

Ÿ         Enya

Ÿ         George Winston

Ÿ         James Galway

Ÿ         Kitaro

Ÿ         Liz Story

Ÿ         Mannheim Steamroller

Ÿ         Merlin’s Magic

Ÿ         Michael Hedges

Ÿ         Michael Jones

Ÿ         Mike Oldfield

Ÿ         Nightnoise

Ÿ         Patrick O’hearn

Ÿ         Shadowfax

Ÿ         Tim Story

Ÿ         Vangelis

Ÿ         William Ackerman

Ÿ         And many, many, many, many more


Music affects us profoundly. Finding music that is appealing and relaxing can be a very powerful part of any personal stress management program.