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…




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *