When Pat and Nancy Feeney bought a seaside flat in Scotland, they were hoping for a peaceful retirement. Last year, builders began repair work on the ferry terminal opposite their home. Unfortunately, the work could only be done at low tide.

"They would start at 10:00 p.m. and go on for six hours," recalls Pat. "The next night they'd start an hour later for another six hours. The noise was tremendous."

The workmen used old and noisy equipment, and left open the acoustic doors supposed to silence the generators. "It was horrendous," says Pat. "It was stressful and we couldn't sleep. Each night we'd think, Is this going to start again tonight?"

Bad News About Noise

Unwanted noise is a problem worth shouting about. Whether it's jack-hammering construction workers or your neighbor's 150-decibel sound system, it can result in mental and physical suffering. According to psychologist Arline Bronzaft, professor emeritus at Lehman College, City University of New York, toxic noise has been linked to stress, hypertension, cardiovascular disorders, and even deficits in children's learning and reading skills.

"People woken at 2:00 a.m. night after night become ratty, depressed, and can become violently angry," says Professor Stephen Palmer of London's Centre For Stress Management.

How Noise Affects You Mentally and Physically

It's all about control, says Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the United Kingdom.

"The key factor in our reaction to noise is the amount of control we have over it," he says. "Research has shown that a person can endure a considerable degree of loud noise, so long as the sound can be switched off at will. The thought 'I can control this' keeps the stress at a low level."

A second factor is that noise is unpredictable. The gentle hum of the office soda machine isn't a problem. The next-door neighbor getting carried away with his new power drill can unravel your sanity.

On a physical level, unwanted, excessive noise can affect physical health because it creates stress and can disrupt sleep.

"If you don't get a good night's sleep, you don't let your body repair itself, and you can't function well the next day," says Bronzaft.

How to Combat Toxic Noise

There are several steps you can take to avoid letting noise affect you:

  • Workplace noise—It's most important to gain a sense of control over the situation. If you're bothered by loud and persistent noise at work, like a bone-shaking assembly line, you can campaign for a better working environment, suggests Cooper. Failing that, you can wear ear plugs, try to change your attitude to one of acceptance, or change jobs.
  • Neighborhood noise—If you live on a main bus route and opposite a set of lights, you can move your main living room and bedroom to the back of the house, if the architecture of your home allows it. Secondary glazing, in which a second window is fitted inside the first, can cut noise too. Even if they don't bring complete silence, these actions give you a sense of control.
  • Noisy neighbors—Most people don't like to confront the person they live next door to, and they fear that saying something about the noise may make the problem worse. "But it is vital to take some control if you can," says Cooper. "Writing a polite letter, if it's not possible to make a personal contact with a neighbor, can at least establish the idea of control in your mind. It also serves to let a person know there is a problem."
  • Legal action—If all else fails, you may need to take the legal route. Most cities have a department of environmental protection that will deal with noise problems. They'll come and measure the noise, and if it's louder than the allowable level, will issue a violation. If the problem is with a noisy neighbor, you need to call the police.