Fact: Listening is Stressful

Did you hear that?






That is the sound of silence.

Not the Simon and Garfunkel variety, but the beautiful, mythical-seeming kind – the absence of static, white noise, and the general chaos of life.

It has been silent at the blog this month. At first, the silence was circumstantial – life just got too busy. But then, thanks to my second husband, DIP (Nick’s Dissertation-In-Progress), it became intentional.

DIP and the family spent the past several Sunday afternoons having a party at the lab trying to iron out the kinks in the data collection process.

The girls happily hung out in the adjacent room with Miss iPad, our trusty babysitter. DIP and Nick hung out at the computer command center pushing buttons and trying not be frustrated. I hung out like this:

I know it looks like I was just sitting there, staring at a computer screen. But in reality, I was listening to and repeating inane sentences (stockings in large sizes are hard to sell) being subconsciously stressed. Not just because Nick made me sit for long periods of time without shaking my legs or twirling my hair (sitting still is physically painful for me). It’s because listening is just stressful.

Yup. It’s a fact. In a process that is beyond the scope of my pathetic understanding of hearing science, when you decide to listen to something, your body predictably and involuntarily freaks out just a wee bit. This is a physiologic stress response called listening effort.

The body has a stress response when listening in quiet, and a bigger response when listening in noise. When Nick had me listen with white noise in the background, he recorded a higher level of stress, even for sentences that I had no trouble understanding. It is a universal, completely involuntary response to noise – even when you can comprehend perfectly fine, more noise equals more stress.

The last couple of years we have tried to intentionally observe the season of Advent as a family. It started as a way to refocus the season on the reconciling peace, joy, and love of the birth of Christ. But this year, it became more than a protest against Christmas consumerism. It became the impetus for a cultural shift in our family.

Advent is a season that embodies expectant hope. Joyful patience. Watching and waiting. Listening.



Sitting there in the lab, failing miserably at not moving, it struck me. The holiday season is where we do everything – decorating, purchasing, wrapping, baking, celebrating – in the name of relationship. For our families and friends. For our neighbors and teachers. For those in need.

I wear my stress like a badge of honor, as proof of how much I care. And inevitably, finding the time to sit down and listen – to my husband, to my kids, to my friends, to God – never quite materializes. I hunker down, close my door and my ears, and chisel away at my list of love activities. I always seem to be snippy. I never feel very loving. I just want to be left alone.

Listening effort – a beautiful advent metaphor. Trying to listen in the ambient (and oft self-induced) noise of the holidays just pushes me over my stress threshold. My brain rebels, screaming “TOO MUCH!” Autopilot switches on, shutting down my desire and ability to truly listen.


In a season where Nick and I have decided to place extra emphasis on the practice of watching, waiting and listening – to each other and to that whispering voice that invites us to participate in healing those around us – I needed to be able to listen without putting myself (and my family!) in perpetual fight-or-flight mode. I knew this year I had to turn down the self-induced noise and limit our exposure to the rest.

So the blog, among other things, fell silent for this season. Once I created a space to listen, almost immediately a handful of friends reached out. Friends standing at life-altering crossroads. Friends staring into inexhaustible heartache. Friends who just needed someone to listen. And, for the first time during the holiday season, I had the time, energy and desire to be present with them and listen.

Our gifts to others this year have been simple, our activities limited, and our house is not clean, but it feels right. I feel like we are where we need to be.


Laura is entering a season of huge responsibility and limited time, so she and I will revisit our blog format after the holidays. But until then, I hope you too can respond to DIP and turn down your noise to truly listen in peace.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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