I had no idea when I sat down beside my brother in the hospital waiting room just how stressful it would be. We were waiting around for our mother’s surgery to end — anxiety-provoking on its own — but something ordinary caused me to become even more agitated to the point of panic: someone chewing a stick of gum.
It wasn’t that the chewing was even that loud. There was no bubble popping or anything inappropriate, just regular chewing by a guy merely wanting the time to pass more quickly.
I scanned the floor. People’s eyes were in their magazines, their phones, or gazing off into the distance. This typical, everyday activity did not phase anyone else.
But, when you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), certain noises can make you feel like the walls are closing in, and you must run away to stay sane.
When Everyday Noises Are Too Much
Yes, some sounds tend to bother many people, like nails on a chalkboard or a baby crying.
According to Dr. Elaine Aron, an expert and pioneer in highly sensitive people, HSPs have an even greater susceptibility to noise compared to non-HSPs. This is because they process information more thoroughly, are more easily stimulated, are more aware of subtle stimuli, are more empathic, and have higher emotional reactivity.
All this boils down to an innate temperament trait (and not a disorder), in which you are acutely affected by the environment and have highly attuned senses. The HSP nervous system gets amped up — always taking in information and stimuli in a variety of ways — and in this case, auditory information on the way to the brain becomes augmented, explains Aron. Often, it can be too much to bear for the hyper-stimulated HSP.
7 Sounds That Put Me on Edge
All HSPs are different, so sounds that bother me may not bother you, and vice versa. Here are seven sounds that push me over the edge as an HSP. Can you relate?
Alarms of any kind tend to set me off, but the absolute worst are smoke and house alarms. Even the little chirping sound when the battery is getting low can be too much, never mind a full-on alarm.
2. Phone notifications
Whether or not the volume is on high, phone or computer notifications are unpleasant for me. When I’m engrossed in something, the last thing I want is another stimulus! I’ve known a lot of highly sensitive people — introverted or not — who get jumpy and overly stressed when their phone or somebody else’s goes off. Let’s focus, people!
Many people enjoy driving convertibles. After all, it sounds very romantic to have sunshine on your face and wind wafting through your hair. But not if you’re a highly sensitive person! Personally, I don’t enjoy anything touching my sensitive ears at all.
Similarly, there is a particular howling sound that a car makes when just one window is cracked open, and for me, it can be agonizing, although others may not notice it at all.
Wind rattling a door or window is also likely to conjure up images of Amityville Horror or The Birds, along with an intense emotional response. As a result, HSPs might feel like they are part of a horror film!
Like many HSPs, I connect with and enjoy music immensely. However, add music or talk radio in the background when working, driving, or anything else that requires my attention, and suddenly it becomes the biggest annoyance of my day.
HSPs often notice people chewing — chewing gum, chewing food, chewing anything. Their sensitive ears tune into each bite, each movement of the jaw, and each tear and lip smack. What seems like an ordinary biological action can be physically painful for me to hear and sometimes emotionally triggering as well.
Tap, tap, tap! Whether it’s a pen hitting a desk or a foot brushing the floor, the sound is equally distracting for me, as I have a hard time blocking out this noise.
7. Background chatter
In addition to the stress of large crowds, if you’re an HSP, you might be very sensitive to background noise at a party, at work, or at a restaurant. While others feel energy from the sounds of activity, I often feel like I’m drowning in them!
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How to Stop the Buzz
In the moment, it can feel like I’m trapped and forced to listen to these excruciating sounds, when in reality, I have options to deal with the noise and stress it brings me. Here are five things I’ve learned about reducing the impact of noise overstimulation:
When you connect to and focus on your breath, you drown out anything in the background. Try this simple breathing exercise:
- Put a hand on your stomach.
- Say to yourself, “I breathe in calm” and breathe deeply into your abdomen.
- Let yourself experience your breath before you say, “I breathe out stress.”
Repeat this several times, and you’ll feel calmer and less triggered.
2. Cover your ears.
There are lots of options to physically create a barrier so you don’t hear the noise at all. You can wear a hat with earflaps, earplugs, or the latest in noise-cancelling headphones. Use your hands if you need to!
3. Approach with curiosity.
Apply your empathy. Like all HSPs, you can use your emotional processing for good. Notice how much the person is enjoying what they’re chewing, or zero in on why they’re tapping their foot repetitively. He’s nervous, so hug him or say something kind, and the irritating noise is going to end — guaranteed.
4. Get the noise to stop.
Stopping the noise may be as simple as taking away the energy source, such as a battery or unplugging a cord. If you have the control to put an end to your misery, do it. If it’s in someone else’s hands, it’s trickier and more delicate to pull off without coming off as a flake (let’s face it, if you’re not an HSP, it’s harder to understand).
Try asking in a joking way or share some interesting facts about HSPs. For example, I told my brother about HSPs and Misophonia, a condition also known as “selective sound sensitivity syndrome” that causes an extreme reaction to certain sounds. It worked! He became curious versus agitated by my request.
5. Remove yourself from the racket.
If all else fails, leave the space. Make any excuse you can, such as going to the bathroom, forgetting something outside or in another room — and don’t regret it. Do whatever you need to do to reduce your aggravation and feel good.
When you learn what triggers you, you avoid situations that might be too noisy for you in the first place like open-concept spaces, windy nights, or sitting next to a certain someone at a holiday dinner. Sometimes, it means giving yourself some quiet time to recharge so you can deal with anything that might come your way.
Finally, consider how grateful you are to have the gift of precise and exceptional hearing. Plenty of other people do not hear well or at all. Think about how intensely you can listen to birds singing, children laughing, waves crashing, and hearts beating. Taking the bad with the good is the key to resilience, and ultimately, happiness.
This article originally appeared on lisapetsinis.com and has been reprinted with permission.
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