If loud restaurants, bars, and concerts don’t bother you (and maybe even amp up your energy levels), consider yourself lucky. An estimated 20-40% of Americans suffer from noise sensitivity, but it manifests differently for everyone. It could mean a few hours in a noisy restaurant puts you on edge, or that spending time with a loud acquaintance makes you want to hide under your bed for a week. Then, of course, when loud chewing sounds like nails on a chalkboard to you (this is technically called misophonia).
For some people, a tendency toward noise sensitivity is built into their DNA. For others (for many people, in fact), it could be indicative of a larger problem. Here’s what your noise sensitivity might be trying to tell you—and what you can do about it.
Identify your stress levels
If certain noises drive you crazy—and especially if they haven’t always bothered you—it might be time to examine your stress levels. Audiologist Marsha Johnson says she believes the link between stress and noise sensitivity is high.
“One factor is that stress, even happy stress, can cause the human body to secrete hormones like adrenaline and cortisol,” she explains. “The inner ear and the brain are very sensitive to changes in hormones, having many hormone receptors dispersed throughout the system. This means that changes or increases do exert a very physiologic change in the functioning of those neural systems.”
It could be situational stress, too. You may be more sensitive to certain sounds in a stressful environment (like your office, for example) than you would be in a more relaxed one. “With the condition of misophonia, where people suffer from extreme reactions to certain trigger sounds, even very soft sounds, [a stressful situation] is going to create a significant upward shift in the hearing capacity of the afflicted,” Johsnon says. “When this happens—the stress and the trigger sound—people tend to have much more force in their own reactions and responses, similar to a volcanic response compared to a simple ripple in a pond.”
Interestingly, women report higher levels of noise sensitivity than men do. And Johnson believes this is probably because women also report higher levels of stress. "The repeated and increased exposure to stress, and the fact that we are not very good at figuring out how to identify and reduce it, leads us to constant stimulation and, in certain cases, increased sound sensitivity."
What to do if noisy environments are getting to you
If you loud noises are driving you crazy, it's time to take stress-reducing activities a bit more seriously. “There are areas of the brain that have been identified as contributing to these symptoms, and there are therapies (like gentle sound therapy or mindfulness-based stress reduction) that are aimed at calming down these hyper-reactive brain centers,” Johnson explains.
If you’re looking for a more immediate solution—or if you suspect your difficulty handling loud noises isn’t all that connected to your stress level—work on arranging your life in a way that incorporates periods of quiet. “Find as much time as you can to use gentle sound therapy—this can be in the form of apps that provide steady state, neutral sounds or broadband soft music, to recover and repair, to provide a healthy balance of exposure and protection.”
And incorporating more quiet shouldn’t just be part of your day-to-day—you should make sure you consider your noise sensitivity when you travel, too. “I advise my patients to stay at a quieter hotel or Airbnb when visiting family to be sure they they have a rest and recovery period scheduled in."
If you notice that your noise sensitivity is more likely to pop up during certain situations, have a plan in place for how you’ll cope."It might be best to avoid trying to stay and end up overexposing yourself. You’ll end up veering to the edge of rage or severe frustration."
Next, read up on how to use meditation to combat anxiety.