How to Deal With Noise Sensitivity as an HSP

A highly sensitive woman covering her ears

Do you have a hard time ignoring noises? Do sounds that seem small to others seem “big” to you? You’re not alone. Here’s what to do.

Like many highly sensitive people (HSPs), noise is a major pet peeve for me.

As a highly sensitive, introverted kid, I could think of few things more peaceful than the quiet that filled the classroom while my classmates and I shared in an introspective moment. The class chinchilla gnawing at his cage bars, and the occasional bell ringing in the distance, were pretty much the only sounds — and it was bliss.

I believed that, for many of us, what’s inside needed time, space, and gentle understanding to organize itself before it was ready to surface. So I had trouble understanding why other kids were so resistant to these moments — and to quiet in general.

This preference isn’t as niche as some people might think. Studies have shown that excess noise can be detrimental to the brain over time. Similarly, Nina Kraus, a professor of auditory neuroscience at the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University, once wrote that “hearing in noise is one of the most difficult jobs the brain has to do on a daily basis.” And, for highly sensitive people, this can be magnified even more since we get overstimulated more easily than others.

Still, how often do we, as HSPs, feel guilty for being bothered by certain stimuli because we know our annoyance either has benevolent or neutral intentions, or just can’t help itself? 

I’m all too familiar with that sort of cognitive dissonance. Particularly when it comes to noise.

Other sounds that have irritated me include everything from a baby laughing too loudly in public to traffic sounds when I’m trying to concentrate on something (or sleep).

With this said, what can we do to help reduce the intensity of some of these noise triggers that seem to be all around us? Here’s what I’ve found.

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5 Ways to Deal With Noise Sensitivity as an HSP

1. Use humor and try to look at the bright side.

Having a sense of humor and harnessing creativity — which we HSPs excel at — can make noise triggers less stressful. I did this once when out on a loud road, comparing all the cars around me to animals. At peak traffic times, we’re like rabid ants — stopping, starting, and scurrying in disarrayed confusion.

I compared the car who beeped his horn while huffily speeding past another to a sassy, impatient squirrel. And those bigger trucks — especially the ones carrying piles of precariously stacked items in their posteriors — to scary, unbalanced hippos.

I also compared cops to sharks, in that their presence seems to subdue all the nearby (car) animals. All maneuver subserviently under the shark’s punitive and threatening watch, becoming skittish and quasi-obedient. Once the shark swims away, the motley crew of motored creatures resume their previous (unruly) behavior.

And when there are noise disruptions when I stay at motels in new cities, at times, the disruption fits the theme of the town. So even if I’m waking up 10 times a night, I can at least say to myself, “I’m getting the San Diego experience,” or “Exhausted, but soaking in the essence of Lancaster.”

2. Search for the piece of control you do have over the situation.

Let’s say you’re at a cafe. You want to focus and tune in to your thoughts. You can’t, though, when the blenders are whirring, when the two people on the couch to your right are talking loudly about a girl who has six moms, and when a small boy is not just screaming, but banging his body against the countertops.

To help curb your agitation, run through what your options are. 

You could tell other people to stop ordering smoothies. You could glare at every customer (to signal disapproval) each time you hear a request for “banana pineapple dream” or “honey almond milk elixir.” You could campaign to ban smoothie production at local cafes, pointing out how they threaten the quiet and serenity of the cafe-goer experience.

You could also leave the cafe and find another one. You could create a cafe inside your own home, where you retain (for the most part) full control over noise conditions. You could try to tune out the noise with ear plugs. 

Or — you could accept the conditions, compromising on your need for quiet surroundings, and try to still put out your best work despite the lack of them. None of these options are ideal, but they’re what we have. 

We always have some control within a situation, and we can always run through our mental catalog of options and identify where that control lies. While we cannot always control our physical environment, we can try our very best to, from cafe-hopping to sleeping alone if we really need some restful sleep and our partner wakes us up a lot.

3. Immerse yourself in fiction through audiobooks.

Noise has been a common problem for me in many of my living situations — be it in Montevideo, Uruguay with 12 housemates who liked to blast Reggatone music at 3 a.m. or the apartment in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District where garbage trucks, drunk pedestrians peeing (or puking) outside my window, and music blasting from nearby parked cars constituted the typical nighttime cacophony.

Some solid headphones delivering a fiction audiobook not only helps drown the noise out, but also calms my brain enough to not be so hypersensitive to any noise that still does make its way in.

I’ve found fictional stories provide a smooth transition into dreaming. Reading a short story or novel, all cozied up under my blankets, helps me relax, physically and mentally. If reading the newspaper is like climbing a hill, immersion into fiction is like slowly submerging one’s self into a Jacuzzi.

Recent books I’ve read that have helped guide me into sleep were The Island of Missing Trees, narrated by a sensitive and observant fig tree (I could feel my thoughts slowing down the more I got pulled into the story) and Crying in H Mart, poignant and evocative in its exploration of a nuanced, but deeply loving, mother-daughter relationship, with mouth-watering descriptions of Korean food.

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4. Practice mindfulness, whether it’s meditating or focusing on your breath.

Noise itself isn’t the only cause of stress. It’s also the thoughts we have in response to that noise. Instead of forbidding access to these thoughts, I’ve shifted now to giving up my attachment to them, focusing on letting them flow in and then out.

You can think of your mind as a nightclub, yourself as the bouncer, and your thoughts as the guests. Rather than make your venue into a snobby, selective place, allow it to be all-inclusive. At the same time, don’t provide the guests with any compelling reason to stay. While it’s natural to feel uneasy about letting in certain characters, you can rest assured they won’t stay for very long if you don’t engage with them.

Once I adopt a more permissive mentality, the motley crew starts finding my night club lame and boring. They’re used to VIP service, so my negligence simply doesn’t appeal to them. They vacate soon enough — leaving my mind quiet, pristine, and more welcoming of sleep (which we HSPs need more of anyway!).

In short, the monkey mind — wherein thoughts run rampant — is not what’s to be feared. It’s the lingering on any one of these thoughts that we could benefit by shifting away from them. Because it’s when we’re trying too hard to control our minds that it often remains vigilant and filled with tension.

Although this may take some practice, it will work. You can try listening to a guided meditation or doing breathing exercises as a way to quiet your mind and focus on the present. That way, you can get rid of those unwanted nightclub guests.

5. Look inward — slow down and give yourself the extra care you deserve.

At times when driving over a rough road, I feel jostled around, like someone’s taking jabs at me and my car from below. Is the city’s infrastructure deteriorating? I wonder. Are the potholes proliferating? Have they not done road work since Clinton was President? 

Sometimes, the roads are getting worse — or you just happened upon a particularly bad one. Other times, it’s your own low tire pressure that’s causing your car to sink to the ground, amplifying the feel of every bump in the road. Maybe a tune-up or more air in your tires would make passing over those road bumps feel like less of an upheaval. 

Similarly, off the road, when our mental and emotional health is suffering, it can feel like everyone’s taking shots at us. How do we gauge the true source of the distress though? Are others to blame? Or is our internal machinery in need of a tune-up?

On the days we feel particularly bothered by loud noises, it might be a cue to slow down and give ourselves some extra care. You can do this through more self-care — whether that’s reading a book, taking a walk, calling an old friend — or simply by “doing nothing.”

(And if all this fails, noise-canceling headphones are well worth the investment!)

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