HSP Wellness: The Highly Sensitive Person and Coping With Noise Sensitivities
Noise and the HSP: A Common Source of Overstimulation
When you're a highly sensitive person (or HSP), noise can be an extremely invasive, distressing, and overstimulating part of life.
In the course of learning about the deeper intricacies of being highly sensitive, it's important to remember that the trait is about a lot more than emotional and psychological sensitivities. A major part of what can make life challenging for HSPs comes from our surrounding environment, in the form of various physical sensitivities.
Everybody is sensitive to noise—to a degree. For HSPs, however, noise can be a pervasive and persistent issue that makes life difficult and even unpleasant. Noise sensitivities show up in a myriad different ways for different HSPs; in this article we'll examine some of the ways intrusive noises affect us... as well as what we can do about them.
It is unclear whether or not the average HSP actually has a more acute sense of hearing than the rest of the world, so for this article I'll primarily focus on the fact that we tend to notice what we hear far more than most people. And even if you're not an HSP—but tend to be sensitive when it comes to sound—this article may offer you some helpful tips, anyway.
About HSP Wellness and Being a Highly Sensitive Person
It's very important to understand that being an HSP is about a lot more than just "getting your feelings hurt easily" or being "emotionally fragile."
This page is part of a growing series of articles focusing on "HSP wellness"; that is, exploring daily practical ways to make life easier and more enjoyable, when you're a highly sensitive person.
Please remember that "High Sensitivity" is not a "diagnosis" and there is no "cure" for it. Rather, it is part of the normal spectrum of human emotions and it affects approximately 15-20% of the world's population, regardless of gender, age, race or nationality.
HSPs and Noise: Mechanical and Electronic Nuisance Sounds
Repetitive mechanical or electronic noise is one form of sound intrusion that bothers many HSPs, often to the point of "driving them to distraction." This type of noise can be particularly troublesome in work environments where we generally have less control over our surroundings, and may not be able to just get up and move to a less noisy location.
An additional challenge is that many of the people around us do not actually hear these sounds—or are not bothered by them—which can lead to the HSP being perceived as "overly finicky" or "high maintenance."
Some good examples of intrusive mechanical and electronic include:
- The faint buzzing sound of fluorescent light fixtures. Although too subtle for most people to notice, they are often a source of irritation for HSPs.
- A squeaking fan in the air conditioner outside the window, or even off in the distance. I used to live in Texas where the sound of air conditioners running were a normal part of summer, and the sound of a squeaky fan somewhere in the neighborhood could keep me awake for hours on summer nights.
- A computer fan that makes a high pitched whine can be a tremendous distraction. It becomes even worse if there's a slight change in its pitch, suggesting that fan might be ready to break down.
- The ticking of an alarm clock (although some—including myself—actually find it comforting) bothers many HSPs.
- An oversensitive car alarm in the neighborhood going off several times a day. Although this is an annoyance for most people, non-HSPs seem better able to "tune out" such a sound.
- An unbalanced ceiling fan that "clicks" or grinds slightly when it runs. I used to have one in my bedroom that ran quietly enough, but it would "sway" slightly, causing the chain that controlled the light to make a sound.
- The sound of a refrigerator compressor, especially one that runs unevenly, like it's threatening to go out.
Noise Sensitivity Is Often an Inherent Part of Being an HSP
In her self-test for High Sensitivity, Dr. Elaine Aron includes a number of questions that relate directly to the issue of being sensitive to noise.
First of all, if you combine the idea that an HSP is "easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input" and seems "to be aware of subtleties in their environment," a high level of awareness of sounds is simply a natural extension of the core trait.
In addition, one item on Dr. Aron's sensitivity inventory literally reads "I am made uncomfortable by loud noises," and a total of six other questions directly or indirectly addresses the issue of noticing, being bothered by or startled by various sounds... suggesting that noise sensitivity is very much part of the trait.
Of course, sound sensitivity is not all bad. Sometimes it means HSPs are aware of something that could become a problem—from mice trying to get into the attic, to a refrigerator compressor on its last legs—before other people, and can thus take appropriate action before there's a serious problem.
HSPs and Noise: Annoying "Organic" and Intermittent Sounds
There are also a number of more "organic" or intermittent noises that can be a great source of distraction and distress for HSPs. Consider these, for example:
- A neighborhood dog that seems to eternally bark at everything, including its own shadow. Of course, this is a noise that probably bugs most people... but it's generally much easier for a non-HSP to "tune it out," after a while.
- Having upstairs neighbors whose footsteps are clearly audible as they as they walk back and forth-- maybe there are certain board in their floor that squeak.
- The sound of leaf blowers and lawn mowers being used nearby—or even in the distance. Sometimes a sound you can "barely hear" can be the most annoying.
- Music being played in the apartment or house next door. Again, not necessarily just LOUD music.
- The sound of dishwashers and washing machines through the walls or ceilings. Sometimes it can even be your own.
- Traffic on a road nearby—especially the sound of sirens from police cars, ambulances and fire trucks.
- A house mate or partner/lover who tends to snore loudly.
- The rope on the neighbor's metal flagpole, which beats against the pole every time there's a strong wind.
- And even as I write this, our whole-house water softener is "making brine," a noisy process that only happens about once a week, for 30-45 minutes.
Are You Sensitive to Environmental Sounds?
Now, we've looked at a couple of different categories of sounds. How do they affect you? You can also leave further comments below the poll.
Which best describes you?
Pause for Contemplation
Now that we've covered some different types of sounds that often are a source of distress to noise sensitive HSPs, what sort of noises bother you?
Leave a comment and share your experience with other readers!
The article continues below the comment section!
Why Do HSPs Have "Issues" With Noise?
So what is the actual problem with noise, when you’re a highly sensitive person?
Because HSPs notice the noise—and then tend to “process it deeply”—these sounds start eating away at our “available bandwidth” for living. You might describe it by saying that they start robbing us of our ability to have the “quiet enjoyment” of our life. After a while—when combined with all the other challenges life throws at us—the noise starts to become overstimulating. Of course, when we become overstimulated we become less effective in the world, not to mention grumpy and irritable.
As a secondary issue, when noise does overstimulate us, we also face criticism from those around us, who might make hurtful statements about our being “too sensitive.”
Are we "too" sensitive?
Well, we really don't have a choice... and the word "too" is a matter of perception. The question can't really be answered honestly because we don't actually have a choice in the matter. As a metaphor, think of a radio. The radio can't "choose" whether or not to receive a signal-- it simply does. What we can do, as HSPs, is learn life skills to help us manage the overstimulating effect of environmental noise pollution.
How HSPs can Best Deal With—and Manage—Environmental Noise
The good news is that there are things HSPs can do to minimize the intrusion of annoying and overstimulating noise.
Of course, remedies will tend to depend somewhat on individual situations. When eternally generated noise is interfering with our sleep, usually the best thing we can do is try to muffle it. There are two approaches we can take: (1) do our best to sound insulate our space and (2) invest in a really good "white noise machine," or CDs/MP3s with pleasant sounds designed to override abrasive sounds.
I use the term "white noise" non-scientifically here, simply to mean something we can deliberately put in the "foreground" of our soundscapes, in order to help muffle the background that's bothering us.
Personally, I prefer environmental "rain" or "wave" sounds, which can be very effective in drowning out background irritants while adding a pleasant and relaxing sound to our foreground.
Some HSPs prefer to use soothing meditative music-maybe flute or piano-to listen to while going to sleep. Even though music is less effective in drowning out annoying sounds, it does tend to serve as a way to "re-focus" our listening attention from the annoying background to our own positively generated foreground. I have often listened to peaceful music while reading before going to sleep... only to discover that I fell asleep with the music on!
Shown below is another personal favorite CD; of course, there are many other ways to create a beautiful, relaxing and "HSP-friendly" sound environment.
Managing the Extreme HSP "Startle Reflex"
No discussion of HSPs and noise sensitivity would be complete without mentioning the issue of having an "elevated startle reflex."
It's very common for this to be an issue-- you're not aware that someone has walked up behind you; then they touch your shoulder or say something (even quite softly) and next thing you know you have to be peeled off the ceiling, while your heart pounds wildly. Sound familiar?
It probably does, as it does for many HSPs. In fact, one of the questions on Elaine Aron's sensitivity self test reads "I startle easily."
Of course, there's nothing we can do about having an extreme startle reflex-- the best countermeasure is simply to be aware and mindful of our surroundings, so things don't sneak up on us so easily.
We can also use that same mindfulness to try to put ourselves in physical places where we have more control over what's behind us, even if we can't see it. We can choose to sit in places where we have the wall at our back, or place our work table in such a location that there's not a traffic way behind us. If we tend to get startled by a suddenly ringing telephone, we can turn the ringer volume way down, so the noise doesn't sound quite as intrusive. Similarly, we can choose a "soft" ringtone for our cell phones, so they don't startle us as much.
When You Need Serious Noise Reduction
For the most pervasive and "intrusive" sounds, sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves is invest in a pair of really excellent noise canceling headphones. This is one area in which I have found that quality (and the attendant price, alas) really DOES matter, but it can be oh-so-worth it!
I have spent a fair bit of time exploring ways to block out noise, be it from the air conditioner I used to have outside my window, or just things like airplane noise while traveling or being in public spaces. There are lots of "budget" ways to go, but in the longer run they really don't work well for HSPs.
Earplugs—even ostensibly "good" ones—only block out so much background noise. But frankly? They are unpleasant to wear. Even the soft, foamy ones that configure to your ear are still bothersome. I have sensitive ears (many HSPs do), and I'm not talking about noise, here.
There are also "ear bud" and "lightweight" earphones that claim to be noise reducing, but my experience—which is backed up by a number of other folks I've talked to—is that they just don't do a particularly great job. And they may be light but they are not that comfortable... and you'll find yourself "fidgeting" with them, quite a lot. Are they less expensive? Absolutely!
For Sensitive Ears: The BEST Noise Canceling Headphones
As mentioned previously, if you are serious about creating your own personal "oasis of peace," your very best bet might be to invest in a pair of high-quality noise-cancelling headphones. I've looked at and tested others, but Bose really has this particular technology figured out. Yes, you may end up spending almost $300.00, but I can't overstate the importance of NOT trying to cut corners here.
I personally have owned and used a couple of the high end Bose models; for me, they are especially important for travel.
Like much top brand audio gear, you may not be able to find these on "deep sale" at some big-box store; Amazon's price seems about as good as any.
Now, as an HSP, I do want to share one important piece of information: The particular type of technology used in authentic (as in, it actually works) noise-cancelling equipment can feel a little "unusual," or even "creepy" until you get used to it.
When the system is active and you're wearing them for the first time it might feel like there is a slight pressure on your ears. For someone with sensitive ears, that might feel a little "alarming" at first (it did, for me), but it's not painful, it's perfectly natural and it actually doesn't take very long to get used to.
General Resources for the Highly Sensitive Person
Below are a variety of helpful web sites for HSPs, where you can find more information and learn about the trait.
- Dr. Elaine Aron's Web Site
Elaine Aron did the original research that led to the discovery that high sensitivity is an inborn neurological trait, not a "psychological issue." She wrote the best selling book "The Highly Sensitive Person" in 1996.
- Dr. Ted Zeff's Web Site
Ted Zeff is an author and expert on high sensitivity who specializes in understanding and helping highly sensitive men.
- The HSP Bookstore
Online bookstore with hundreds of titles hand picked for their relevance to the highly sensitive-- the largest selection in one place on the web.
- Douglas Eby's High Sensitivity site
Part of the Talent Development Resources network, this site features hundreds of articles and links on the topics of being highly sensitive and creative.
We Live in a Noisy World!
We live in a sound-filled world, and it seems to be getting louder every day... and there is really no getting away from that. When you're a highly sensitive person, this "wall of noise" can feel quite overstimulating and distracting.
However, we can't expect the world to change to accommodate our needs for quiet surroundings. Instead, the onus falls on us to create our own peaceful "oases"—real, or virtual— where we can relax during those times when we don't have to engage with the noisy world. We can also make "less noisy" choices, when it comes to lifestyle, places to live, work and so on.
We can help ourselves by striving to be aware of our surroundings, and through learning how manage our immediate environments and our lives in such a way that the noise around us is kept at a "dull roar," rather than an outright din.
Thank you for reading this article about HSPs and noise sensitivity. Comments and feedback are always welcomed!
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Why do I ask? The more the world knows about and understands high sensitivity, the easier our lives—as HSPs—will be!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Questions & Answers
What if you are highly sensitive to a noise that's repetitive in the car so headphones and earplugs would only create a dangerous driving situation? How do we teach ourselves to tolerate the noise during these times? I get a sense of panic every time I hear the noise but its nothing fixable within the car.
That's a particularly tricky situation, as there is functionally little you can do. I used to have a car that had a particular rattle that drove me batty... and I found the only way to effectively cope was to remind myself that I was in a TEMPORARY situation that had a finite end (when the car stopped). Only a small help, but a little bit, all the same.
Often with sudden sounds, I actually feel pain. For example, if the radiator bangs or a car horn honks, I can not only be startled, I can actually feel pain in my head and sometimes end up in tears. I wonder if other Highly Sensitive Persons experience this and if it is common?
I can definitely relate to this, although I have no idea whether it's a common thing for HSPs. I grew up in a house my parents were quite literally building around us, even while we lived there. The sound of a power saw cutting wood literally would cause pain like the saw blade was cutting into my HEAD. Whether there is any truth to this or not, a friend who's a neurosurgeon suggested that I simply was having an uncommonly hard time metabolizing the jolt of adrenaline from hearing powerful and startling sounds.
© 2013 Peter Messerschmidt