Sound, Noise, and Highly Sensitive People

This is the third in a series of posts exploring Sensory Processing Sensitivity. In the series, we’ll discuss what SPS is, some common struggles for highly sensitive people, and some coping techniques. As someone who lives with Sensory Processing Sensitivity, and works with many HSP in my practice, this topic is near to my heart. Today, we’ll discuss sound.

Noise sensitivity is an inherent a part of being a HSP. Whilst our hearing is not ‘better’, research shows that a HSP brain will augment the auditory input. We simply notice the sound more. I sometimes notice some rhythmical noise (the buzz of a distant ventilation system, the noise of a party caught on the wind) which no one else has, and feel like I must find out the source. In addition to taking more notice, I can’t seem to switch off my need to know. Curiosity, too, is inherent in HSP –we reflect on things deeply, including that annoying clicking noise. Curiosity, like all things is not good or bad. It is a unique mixture of both.

Sound and NOISE

There is quite a distinction between sound and noise. Sounds have the potential to be uplifting or nuanced, or to directly speak to the emotional self.  For me, noise is sound that has become too much. Too much sound can make it impossible for me to give something or someone my full attention, make it difficult to reside in peace, or leave me unable to sleep.

I think many people struggle with the increasing volume of the world we live in. Because there is more ambient sound, more of the time, a growing number of us experience it as noise. It has been observed that blackbirds in London sing louder than elsewhere in the UK — in order to be heard above the noise, they need to get louder. For the blackbirds, and for us, this rising volume means that the quiet things are more difficult to hear. There’s less space for silence; and in the rush to be heard, we sometimes lose our capacity to listen.

Noise and activity can grab our attention. The sheer force of noise can leave us feeling totally off-centre. When in a noisy environment, I can find it difficult to root myself in this body of mine. It feels as though the commotion carries me off and away, when I want me back here.

Empathy and Sound Sensitivity

If you are overwhelmed by noisy spaces, you may be picking up on the feelings of others. This can happen via all your senses, but certainly someone else’s intonation or choice of words can fall heavily and leave you with a feeling that isn’t entirely yours. HSPs have more brain activity in their mirror neurons than non-HSPs, and it has been argued that mirror neurons are the neural basis of the human capacity for empathy. See the summary of the paper here for more information. This is another reason HSPs can become over stimulated: the ability to notice how others are feeling can mean, to some extent, we are also processing other people’s experiences – not just our own.

Noise and Sleep

HSPs are particularly prone to having their sleep disrupted by noise. I find it hard to sleep in a new place, as I end up waking to any small noise. I think lots of us sleep quite lightly, and we HSPs really do need our sleep. It is our time to process all that deep engagement with the world.

Ways to Take Care of Yourself in a Noisy World

There are a number of things I have found that help in response to and during too much noise input:

  1. Be held by nature. Nature is by no means silent, but it seems to sooth most of us. Sometimes I overwhelm myself, make a grandiose plan to relax by taking a daytrip out of the city, and then feel pressurised by that (am I doing the right thing?). I have found that the best way to keep nature in my life has been little and often: going to a tree in a park, walking the long way home (which I know is peaceful), avoiding the busy roads. These are small ways to take care of your sensitive senses
  2. Create a quiet space. I have a corner in my bedroom. In it, there’s a comfy chair, a soft blanket, a candle, some friendly-faced items, things which make me glad and a rule: when I am in this space I want to be alone and quiet. This means that I have communicated to people around me that when I am in this space I want to be quiet and alone. I may listen to a meditation, write, or just stare (staring should definitely count as a hobby). There are a hundred ways you can create calming space for yourself. My husband has a “Jazz corner,” which is the same thing, but y’know, you listen to jazz there, drink black coffee and read. What soothes your senses? What would be in your quiet space?
  3. Keep calm on the move: When traveling, whether in your day-to-day life or on a big adventure, there are things you can do to prevent noise-related overwhelm. Downloading nature sounds or music you find relaxing (or just the music you like) can transport you away from the space you find yourself in. Investing in noise cancelling headphones or some other smart travelling audio idea, can be a big help too. When visiting friends recently, I asked if I could have some time alone to meditate. Then, I took myself off to a space where I could be silent for a little time away – creating a small safe haven for myself. Expressing your needs can take practice and friends who are willing to understand and accept you. Learning how to find both is a process, too.
  4.  Invest in earplugs. I’m not sure I could sleep without them. I like the silicon ones best. If they hurt your ears, perhaps invest in over-the-ear headphones and play white noise or get some of those fabulous (but expensive) noise cancelling headphones.
  5. At work: I know lots of my clients work in noisy environments and there are sometimes ways around this (and sometimes not). Any of the above tips may work, as might discussing with your manager the importance of a quiet space to go when you need to concentrate. You could even educate him/her on HSP as a concept and associated productivity needs by providing information like this. Some solutions might be using a meeting room to make phone calls, working from home or another space when the need arises, or having ‘quiet hours’ in the office. In a past workplace, I often became overwhelmed by co-workers’ questions. Once I noticed this challenge, I would say “can we speak in two hours, as I just need to focus on this now, and later I’ll be able to give you by full attention?”.

Radical Ideas

Avoid the noisy things for good e.g. never get on a bus again.

Take a risk and ask for what you need. If no one respects what you have to say, leave. Whether this is a partner who won’t understand your need for quiet space, or a job which drains you because of the noise, if it can’t be changed and it drains you, you may need to go in order to recover your life.

Enhance :

In each ‘enhance’ section I’ll ask you to think about a sense and its subtleties that you enjoy.

Are you deeply affected by a sound? The swell of an orchestra, or the song of birds? I love the sound of rain, particularly on a plastic roof. So, I carry with me the sound of the rain (on my phone), and I get to enjoy it whenever I like. When it’s actually raining outside, I search out places with a window to the sky (ideally corrugated plastic), and I get to enjoy my sensitivity. I can be ‘held’ by the richness of this sound. I listen to music which aligns with how I feel, and it helps me to be present with my feelings and fall into my depth. This song helped me to accept a painful loss and after the pain had passed all I had left was love, and it was exquisite.

My sensitivity gives me such joy, and I’d like yours to, as well. What do you really love to hear? Write a list and collect those sounds. If you’re not sure, then it’s time to explore: go for a walk or sit where you are and listen and feel. What do you like? Create a collection, on your computer, on your phone, during time outside, and call on it when you want to enjoy your sensitivity.

P.S. What do you think of these sounds?

a drink fizzing

crinkly things being crinkled

(The sensation you may have in response to these videos might be ASMR, which stands for autonomous sensory meridian response. It’s a kind of tingling/comforting response and sensation you get via your ears. There are hundreds of sounds that stimulate an ASMR in some people, from simple noises, to people whispering, to roleplays). It may not be your thing, but it might be! I like that it is a thing: a gentle, sensitive thing. There is research underway researching the connection between high sensitivity and ASMR.

The next post in my HSP senses series will focus on the sense of taste, more specifically nutrition…




Sensory Processing Sensitivity, A Primer

This is the first in a series of posts exploring Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS). In the series, we’ll discuss what SPS is, some common struggles for highly sensitive people, and some coping techniques. I work with the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) in my practice and identify as a HSP too, so this topic feels very important to me. I hope it helps you (even just a little bit) to live well in a world which can feel overwhelming, as well as rich beyond words.

Our Senses Bring the World to Us, for Better or Worse
Our sensory systems are the gateway by which we experience the world. We experience the social world by hearing the voice of another and watch emotion revealed in the small motions they make, or in the glint of an eye. Smelling a scent can transport us away to another time. Hearing the sound of rain can have us sleeping sweetly. Sometimes, especially for the highly sensitive (those who experience SPS), the world can sometimes feel like too much. All the information flowing into our sensitive systems can simply be too much to process. For example, in a social situation, I’ll be aware of so many things: the banging beats of music in the background, the sound of another conversation nearby, the smells of food, and then someone speaking to me with all their feelings and intricacies, plus my desire to really, presently listen… it can feel like too much.
Feeling overwhelmed can be a clue that the way we are choosing to live our lives is exhausting us. Which is to say that, in order for the highly sensitive to thrive, sometimes things will need to change. Change requires a certain sort of environment: one in which we can rest and reflect in order to make decisions and take action. Rest can be hard to find, though, even if we have managed to prioritise the time. It can be difficult to decide how to do what’s good for you. I have found it hard, too.

What is A Highly Sensitive Person? Am I One?
If what I have said throughout this website, particularly on my home page, resonates with you, chances are you are highly sensitive. If people have told you that you are “too sensitive,” then it might be time to hear a different message: a message that your sensitivity is an innate trait, that you have been born in a way which allows you to take in more information than most and reflect deeply. If this sounds like you, you are not made wrongly, but are sensitive in a way that can (when in the right environment) nourish you and the world. However, if you’ve not heard about this term before, I would encourage you to explore more. You can take a look on my website, or further afield (there are links from my page).

Listening to Our Sensitivities
Our sensitivities can provide such wisdom and joy. My ability to empathise, to use my sensitivity with another and my deep reflection on what it means to live, opens the world up to me time and time again. Yet, we can be required to misuse our sensitivities too, whether that’s through societal or relational demands, we can end up not hearing what our body is telling us. This is by no means always the case, but some schools of psychotherapy, point to a link between our senses and some chronic issues we might have… if you have a headache which centres around your eyes, or a migraine which affects your sight, perhaps you have seen enough. If your shoulders ache, are you carrying too much? I like to ask myself these questions sometimes.

Our perspective of the world flows through our senses, this is the way it will always be. But we do, at least some of the time, get to choose when we allow, pause or turn away from the complexities that face us. It’s okay to find stuff difficult; you don’t have to keep doing it because you’ve been told you should. In my next post, I’ll focus on how you might find ways to find some rest and create a better relationship between your needs and your senses.

Do you love your body? **this post comes with an apology for this post**

**Content Warning: this is naive post, it does not take into account the experience of trans people, that being born in a body does not align with the sex assigned at birth and wanting to change that is a valid and worthy experience. I am sorry. I decided not to delete the post, with the idea of the ‘mess is the message’ in mind, not to hide my ignorance. I have learned, and continue to. This post also doesn’t fully recognise, I don’t think, the true weight of the messages many people receive that their body is not ok or is invisibled (perhaps because it’s not a white body, a differently abled body, a non-“ideal”). Also I may have, implied it is your responsibility to feel ok about your body – which simply adds another layer of blame in an already blame heavy society. I am sorry for that too.**

If not, I think it’s time.

I’ve been aware of carrying a sense of waiting with me. It’s as though at some level I’m waiting for life to start. I knew that this is it; this is my life, but some part of me wouldn’t allow that knowledge to truly sink in. It’s strange the chatter in your head, which becomes so familiar. I was waiting until I was thinner and I had failed to notice the insidious nature of this repeated message. The thoughts have been keeping me living life in the shadows. So much of my own chatter is around not being accepted, and being found to be ugly.

Recently a client said she loved her body, and it changed me. I thought ‘I want to love my body too.’

So I have begun.

I am trying to love my body as it is. I am trying to stop waiting until I am “better”. It’s been amazing and painful too. I used to hope I could become perfect, because this would make me invulnerable. But I am vulnerable and I know that it’s this openness to the pains and joys of life which is real beauty. It’s the visceral openness which connects us.

If you have thought for a lot of your life that you need to make up for how you are, by sacrificing your needs for others, if you sometimes feel shame when you meet the eyes of others, or if fear becomes lodged in your skin and you begin to hate it — I’d like to offer you a heartfelt alternative.

I’d like to say to you: you are beautiful as you are. Not when you lose some weight or start to eat better. Now. I am beautiful and so are you.

For so long I had hated my body, and the story is so typical because I was a healthy, fit and a melancholy sort of beautiful. But I punished my body because I didn’t know how else to deal with this sense that I did not fit, that I was wrong, built wrong, made wrong. I thought at times people could see ‘evil’ through my skin. I’ve come so far from that place now, but there was a hangover, something left over to shed. I’m bored of viewing my own beauty superficially; so here I make a pact to learn and to try to have a good relationship with my body, hopefully eventually to love it.

I sometimes hate my stomach, there’s a bit of fat on it, and it doesn’t look as it ‘should’. But secretly I’ve liked it’s softness and the curve of it. I have begun to think about it from the inside too, it feels so much, it tells me my needs, it lets me know of my anxiety. It even feels anxiety in empathy with another. Surely this makes it beautiful.


We tend to view ourselves in bits. Focus on our nose, dislike it; but do you do that to people you love? Beauty isn’t in the smile on a photo, it’s the experience of being with someone when they light up with laughter. Knowing that, letting that sink into my bones makes me feel brave.

When I was at university someone said of her boyfriend “I didn’t used to like hairy bodies, but now I’m glad it keeps him warm” I loved the sentiment at the time. Try to find a part of yourself you bully and begin to think of it as part of your beautiful whole.

Some of this can be a painful process, as with all change. If you have hated your body for a long time you have a familiar process of blaming it for feelings which are hard to bare and it can be hard to find a place for your distress.

If you would like to change this process ask what support you might need, and go find it if you can, This might be finding a good therapist, a trusted friend, or online. Find a way to share and connect through your pain and move away from placing the distress into your skin.

What we see as beautiful is nowhere close to what we experience when we feel beauty. Let it in.

Beauty goes deep; and because of this, you are beautiful as you are.

Guest Blog: Naturopathy for the Highly Sensitive

By Michelle Matthews of Wholistic HealthcareHFC Shel sepia (6)

How can physical or tangible complementary therapies benefit issues of the mind and emotion?

Naturopathy is not just limited to issues of the physical body. Naturopathy’s main health philosophy is to establish balance for the whole person, by looking at the mind, body and spirit and using nature to allow healing.

A naturopath uses their “tools” to help the person achieve inner balance. These tools may include herbal medicine, nutritional therapy & diet, Iridology, functional testing and perhaps a few others.

As a skilled naturopath, I do not just use one therapy for a person but an aspect of a few or all of them to help achieve a sense of wellbeing and health.

But how can Naturopathy benefit you as a highly sensitive person, will not any other complementary therapy do?

As a naturopath the aim is to understand you as a person and your health concerns. A detailed case is taken of your current health concerns, past and present health, discuss your current eating and diet habits, discuss your body systems and some analysis such as Iridology is conducted.

We may eat many foods which we think are good for us or the media and press tells us is good. But are they good for highly sensitive people?

In fact, when we are low, anxious, nervous and reactive to people and our environment we can eat to comfort ourselves, forget to eat or even over indulge in certain foods. It is these types of eating patterns which can lead to more unsettling feelings.

As a sensitive person it is important to eat the right foods for you to nourish the body in times of stress or anxiousness.

For example foods such as chilli, garlic and onions are common vegetables and spices. But can be too stimulating for a sensitive type person. They can evoke anger, too much heat within the body and can bring on sweating in people.

They contain a rich compound called sulphur which dominates the liver. Stimulating the liver can be detoxifying and beneficial for some people but can be too stimulating for others especially if they are sensitive and are prone to stomach problems. Did you know that chilli can be addictive?

Diet and the way we eat and select our food is just simply one aspect that a naturopath will address.

It is important to get the right approach and balance to wellbeing and health for you.

Naturopathy may just help you on the right path.

Michelle Matthews is an Australian trained Naturopath with over 15 years clinical experience. She has a large and varied client base that uses Naturopathy as their form of healthcare for both physical and emotional health issues. She is based in Leith, Edinburgh.

For more information: phone 0845 11 99 099 or email:

Clinic: Leith Therapy Clinic, 41 Commercial St Edinburgh EH6 6JD (withing Tiso’s)