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: 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 to pass the time 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, certain noises can make you feel like the walls are closing in, and you must run away screaming to stay sane.
When everyday noises can be too much
Yes, some sounds tend to bother many people, like nails on a blackboard 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. 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 of 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 central 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.
Here are 7 sounds that other people easily tolerate but push HSPs over the edge:
Alarms of any kind tend to set off an HSP, but the absolute worst is 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 HSPs. When you’re engrossed in something, the last thing you 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 starts going 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! You might not enjoy anything touching your sensitive ears at all.
There is a particular howling sound that a car makes when just one window is cracked open, and to an HSP, it’s agonizing, though 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, and intense emotional response. HSPs might feel like they are part of a horror film as a result!
HSPs can connect to and enjoy music immensely. Add music or talk radio in the background when working, driving, or anything that otherwise must require your attention, and suddenly it becomes the biggest annoyance of the day.
HSPs often notice people chewing – chewing gum, chewing food, chewing. 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 to hear and emotionally triggering as well.
Tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap! Whether it’s a pen hitting a desk, or a foot brushing the floor, the sound is equally distracting for an HSP who has a hard time blocking out this noise.
7. Background chatter
In addition to large crowds stressing you out, if you’re an HSP, you might be very sensitive to background noise at a party, at work, or when you’re out a restaurant. While others feel energy from the sounds of activity, you might feel like you’re drowning in them!
How to stop the buzz
In the moment, it can feel like you’re trapped and forced to listen to these excruciating sounds when, in reality, you have options to deal with the noise and the stress it brings to you. Here are a few ways to reduce the impact of the overstimulation:
When you connect to and focus on your breath, you drown out anything in the background. Overall, you’ll feel calmer and less triggered than if you didn’t.
2. Cover your ears.
There are lots of options to physically create a barrier so that you don’t hear the noise at all. You can wear a hat with earflaps, earplugs, or the latest in noise-cancelling earphones. 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, 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 have not regrets. 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 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.
Lisa Petsinis is a certified coach and self-identified HSP who works with women to ditch overwhelm, take back control of their lives, and reclaim their joy. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Psych Central, Prevention, The Minds Journal, POPSUGAR, and YourTango. Visit Lisa’s website to learn more about her services, sign up for her newsletter, or contact her for a complimentary discovery call so you can confidently move toward a life you’ll love.