Phonophobia turns up the volume — both internally and externally — in HSPs’ heads.
The melody of a beautiful song.
The coo of a baby.
The lulling calm of ocean waves.
Many people enjoy these sounds, yet research shows that the sensory processing sensitivity of highly sensitive people (HSPs) often allows beautiful and calming sounds to be appreciated more deeply. An intensified sense of sound is just one of the many amplified sensory experiences HSPs are familiar with. But just as highly sensitive types are able to enjoy deeply soothing sounds more so, we are oftentimes overwhelmed by loud and menacing ones.
When a person recognizes that they are among the 20 percent (or more) of the population who identify as highly sensitive, they often experience feeling heard, seen, and validated. Learning about being highly sensitive and acknowledging the beauty of our high sensitivity allows us the opportunity to embrace, rather than to reject, the many beautiful things that uniquely make us who we are. And just as we HSPs feel our feelings, we also hear them.
Yet startling and excessively loud sounds deeply frighten many HSPs. A balloon popping, a car back-firing, fireworks, and a tree falling are all noises that may cause a number of people to startle a bit. But these noises can be especially debilitating for highly sensitive types.
In fact, many HSPs are not only overwhelmed by loud noises, but we are actually frightened by them. When an HSP is regularly frightened by both loud sounds and the possibility of hearing loud noises, they may suffer from a condition known as phonophobia. Phonophobia is a fear of, or aversion to, loud sounds that is classified as a treatable anxiety disorder.
It is important for highly sensitive people dealing with phonophobia to distinguish it from other hearing disorders, to understand exactly what phonophobia is, to comprehend why it affects them in the way that it does. It’s also necessary to examine what treatment options are available to help manage the condition.
Phonophobia Is Not Tinnitus or Misophonia
While phonophobia is considered a treatable anxiety disorder, it is not a hearing disorder like tinnitus or misophonia. People with tinnitus experience ringing (or other sounds) in one or both ears. And it’s not caused by an external sound, but by an underlying condition, such as hearing loss or issue with their circulatory system.
Misophonia, on the other hand, has to do with noises that are considered “softer sounds”: people chewing, feet tapping, heavy breathing, and the alarm clock buzzing, for example. As a result of their sensory sensitivity, it is not uncommon for HSPs to experience misophonia.
One of the main distinguishing traits between misophonia and phonophobia is the source of the noise. Researchers say that those who struggle with misophonia typically deal with a dislike or intolerance of a specific kind of noise, while those with phonophobia deal with a fear of loud sounds. They may be aware it is coming — or not.
Although misophonia and phonophobia are classified as two separate ailments, there are rare instances where phonophobia will present as an extreme case of misophonia. This could happen when the anticipation of certain noises (like nails on a chalkboard) causes extreme anxiety or fear. Typically, however, the two are distinguishable.
What Makes Phonophobia Different
So what, exactly, is phonophobia? Defined, phonophobia is “an intolerance or hypersensitivity to sound; [or]fear of sounds, especially loud, sudden sounds.” According to the fifth Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental DIsorders (DSM-5), the diagnosis of phonophobia includes:
- immediate anxiety that is always caused by the fearful situation
- persistent fear or anxiety surrounding the situation
- fear or anxiety considered disproportionate to the situation
- an interruption of everyday functioning
A person suffering from phonophobia experiences intense reactions to any type of loud noise, regardless of the cause. Some of the symptoms a person with phonophobia may display include:
- profuse sweating
- panic attacks
- mood swings
- irregular heartbeat
How Does Phonophobia Affect HSPs?
As an HSP, excessive noise can be distressing and overwhelming. When that overwhelm is compounded with fear and anxiety, it can feel like constantly walking around with a vicious animal waiting to pounce on you. You’re never quite sure when you’ll be attacked, but you realize that the possibility is there. Always there. Always lurking.
For HSPs suffering from phonophobia, this fear is equally as present, and equally as frightening. Two key factors in explaining why HSPs struggle with phonophobia are due to HSPs’ heightened awareness of external stimuli and their tendency to get overwhelmed by conflict and confusion. For example, due to our heightened sense of hearing, we HSPs have an uncanny ability to hear background “noise” that others cannot — like that ticking of a clock, buzzing of an air conditioner, or that person whispering across the room. These may all be overlooked by non-sensitive people, but these noises can cause HSPs to become agitated and aggravated. And, of course, loud noises overwhelm and stress out HSPs more so than non-sensitive types, everything from an explosion on TV to the anticipation of loud sounds, like fireworks.
In addition to causing anxiety, overstimulation caused by phonophobia can affect HSPs’ moods in other ways, too. When an HSP becomes overwhelmed due to sensory overload, it can lead to overstimulation. This overstimulation can affect our moods, causing irritability and frustration. This frustration and irritability can be misinterpreted by our friends and family as anger, or a similar negative emotion. Since HSPs crave connection and try, at best, to avoid conflict, these misunderstandings can contribute to an already frustrating experience. When this happens, the noise around us is amplified by the noise in our heads. Thus, the conflict caused by misunderstanding turns up the volume — both internally and externally.
Treatment for Phonophobia
The good news is that phonophobia is considered a treatable anxiety disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy are two treatment options available to help those suffering with phonophobia to be able to overcome and possibly conquer their fears.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): In CBT, the focus is on changing the negative thoughts contributing to the anxiety surrounding the phobia. CBT focuses on changing thought patterns and enlists a multitude of strategies, from having someone become aware of their mental distortions to journaling to using relaxation techniques. These all attempt to shift the overall mindset surrounding fear.
- Exposure therapy: During exposure therapy, an individual — with the guidance of a therapist/counselor — faces their fears and anxieties in a safe and controlled environment. This exposure can be done in both imaginary or real-life scenarios. This type of treatment reduces the feelings of fear and anxiety by slowly introducing triggers that typically would escalate a phobic episode.
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What Steps Can an HSP Take to Self-Manage Phonophobia?
There are also options available for HSPs who would like to try to self-manage phonophobia. It is important to note that these methods do not take the place of therapeutic treatments, but they can be effective along with these treatments. This way, HSPs can use these tools to identify phonophobia triggers and the factors contributing to their increased anxiety.
- White noise machines project frequencies at equal intensities and are able to mask loud sounds that stimulate the brain and add to anxiety. The sound is given off at a level that helps block out loud noises and quiet the mind. Quieting environmental noise could benefit a person with phonophobia by dimming the volume of the sounds around them. For instance, the Relax Melodies app has everything from piano music to the sound of rain.
- Noise-cancelling earbuds or headphones can help to drown out the ambient noise of the outside world that can overwhelm HSPs and be a trigger for phonophobia. Be mindful of using earbuds or headphones when in busy areas, though, so that you do not compromise your personal safety.
- HSPs long for connection and thrive when we are able to have open, honest, and deep conversations with our family and friends. An HSP dealing with phonophobia is presented with an opportunity to connect with their support systems, by communicating with them about their struggle, what their triggers are, and how they could best be supported. Living in constant fear of loud noises can be exhausting, and it helps when we are able to discuss our fears with those in our trusted inner circle who are willing to try to help us find solutions.
- Relaxation techniques, such as mindfulness and meditation, can also be helpful when combined with other courses of treatment. Employing breathing techniques, body scans, and mindset meditations can help reduce an HSP’s anxious mind. These tactics enable us to make a roadmap to aid us in calming down and working through our fears.
HSPs’ senses are more astute than those of their non-sensitive friends. Smells affect us more strongly, we can see and appreciate beauty on a deeper level, and we are able to hear things that others sometimes cannot. An intensified sense of hearing can oftentimes be beneficial — like when it comes to hearing a child crying or calling for their parent, or when an animal is in pain and others cannot hear its cries.
There are, however, instances in which too many sounds can be too much for HSPs. For some sensitive folks, it is not just the ability to hear more, but the unfortunate instance in which we fear certain loud sounds. If you feel as though you may be suffering from phonophobia and have tried unsuccessfully to address it, it may be time to reach out to a medical professional. Help is available for you to live a more balanced and fearless life, and for you to begin enjoying the sound(s) of beauty once again.
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