If you've got stress in your life (who doesn't?), there's really no wrong way to combat it--any safe activity that can destroy even a little of your anxiety matters. Still, time is a precious gem in the professional world, so ideally, you want to choose relaxation techniques that give you a good bang for your buck.
Which begs the question--does listening to woodland sounds (e.g., birds, leaves rustling), a guided meditation, or silence slash your anxiety more?
600 people, 60 seconds, 3 tracks, 1 winner
To find out, the National Trust, which cares for thousands of square miles of woodland in England, Wales, and Ireland, did a simple study. In partnership with research agency Walnut Unlimited, they got 600 people to listen to each of these three options for one minute each and then evaluated the effects on their level of stress via a method called mental chronometry.
The clear winner? Woodland sounds. According to the researchers, participants in the study enjoyed feeling 30 percent more relaxed when listening to nature. Their stress and anxiety also dropped by 25 and 20 percent, respectively.
Close behind in second place was the guided voice meditation app, which was only slightly effective at helping the participants feel more at ease. Silence offered only a tiny improvement.
The potential explanations
As for why the researchers got the results they did, it might be because human beings associate woodland sounds with peace, freedom, and beauty. These may be learned associations we've built over time. But human beings are also designed to be in nature--our circadian rhythms, for example, tie to the temperatures and availability of light around us. It could be that our brains are simply hardwired to respond positively to specific environmental cues. The researchers acknowledged both these possibilities.
In the same vein, while silence can help your brain focus in different ways, we rarely operate in an auditory vacuum and thus might find the absence of sound disconcerting. As social creatures, however, the sound of someone else's voice can be comforting while perhaps still failing to fulfill the even more basic psychological or survival needs that woodland sounds do.
The uncomplicated office takeaway
If you can get outside to an area like a park or nature trail when your blood pressure rises, opt for that first. The superior relaxation results likely will mean a stronger boost to your subsequent productivity. It's also a logical choice given the growing wealth of other research showing the benefits of time in nature--surrounding yourself with greenery has been shown to let the brain downshift and improve memory, for example, while other work suggests inhaling the phytoncides trees emit might boost the immune system.
But if you can't get away due to time or location constraints, tracks of these sounds might be a better option than listening to someone calmly talk, and a free meditation app likely will benefit you more than totally trying to block everything out.