Health and Wellness

Feeling stressed? You need to hear about binaural beats

By Eric Harry

Stop and listen to what’s going on around you. Chances are, you hear more than just one sound — perhaps the rumble of cars passing, the microwave whirring and people chatting close by. If the daily cacophony tends to overwhelm you, you might be hesitant to add more sound to your routine. But the right sounds may be the key to helping you relax, rest and function better — which is where “binaural beats” come in.

Your ears just might hold the key to relaxation

Though it’s common in the modern world, being surrounded by competing sounds can become not only distracting but overwhelming, too. And even when you do get a moment’s peace, you may be so used to being overstimulated that you find it difficult to release stress at the end of the day and refocus. 

What are binaural beats?

Binaural beats are therapeutic soundwaves specifically designed to encourage certain states in the brain. The technique involves playing two different sound frequencies at the same time, one in the left ear and one in the right. The brain registers the difference between the two and “hears” a single, new frequency tone. For example, if a 100-hertz tone is played into your left ear and a 120-hertz one is played into your right ear, the brain will perceive a tone at a 20-hertz frequency. (This new tone is at such a low frequency that you might not be able to actually hear it, but your brain does.) 

binaural beats music2

How do they work?

Binaural beats are thought to have an effect on our brainwaves, the electrical activity that occurs when the neurons in our brains fire. Those neurons control all our thoughts and activities, and different brainwave frequencies correspond with different states of stimulation. For example, your brainwave activity when you’re working out is more active than when you’re napping. Binaural beats are believed to raise or lower this activity to a level that corresponds with a more desirable mental state.

Types of brain waves

There are four types of brainwaves to which binaural beats can be “tuned.”

  • Delta patterns (approx. 0.5–4 Hz), which occur during deep, dreamless sleep
  • Theta patterns (approx. 5–8 Hz), which are associated with daydreaming, meditation and certain phases of sleep
  • Alpha patterns (approx. 9–14 Hz), which are associated with rest and relaxation when awake
  • Beta patterns (approx. 13–40 Hz), which are associated with alertness and concentration (binaural auditory stimulation at higher frequencies can be anxiety-inducing)

What does the science say?

Research on the efficacy of binaural beats is still in its preliminary stages, but has shown some promising results. One small 2005 study out of the U.K. found that they may help reduce preoperative anxiety. In another U.S. study from 2016, participants who had been previously diagnosed with chronic pain reported that theta binaural beats helped reduce their perception of pain. There is also some evidence that binaural beats may also boost memory and creativity however, more in-depth research to study the benefits that binaural beats could have on the mind, mood and body need to be done.

How can you use binaural beats?

Though binaural beat therapy shouldn’t replace any doctor-prescribed treatment or medication, adding them to a healthy routine may be an effective tool for relaxation and there a few common situations where you may find binaural beats helpful. Say you’re in a busy coffee shop and need to study or get some work done; binaural beats can help you block out distractions and concentrate on the task at hand. If you’ve just come home from a long day at work and need a smooth transition into domestic life, they may also help you let go of your stress and mentally wind down. And if you want to prepare for a good night’s sleep, you can use them as part of your bedtime routine.

With hundreds of channels of relaxing music, sleep music and sounds, Calm Radio curates, categorizes and streams a variety of audio experiences, including three relaxing music channels specifically dedicated to binaural beats: Horizons, Whispering Angel and My World. Each is designed to put you in a state of rest and relaxation. Although the channels are continuously streaming, they all start with a cool down, designed to lower your heart rate and prime your mind so you can receive the full binaural effect. 

Keep in mind that since binaural beats deliver different tones to different ears, it’s best to listen to them using high-quality stereo headphones to get the maximum effect. A handy guide to different headphone options can be found here

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