Are You Noise Sensitive? Here's How to Tell


The sympathetic nervous system kicks in, boosting your heart rate, increasing your blood pressure, and triggering the body to produce inflammatory cells. Over time, these changes can lead to chronic inflammation, high blood pressure, and plaque buildup on your arterial walls.

To complicate matters, when you begin to lose your ability to hear at a particular frequency due to aging, illness, or injury, the auditory system goes into overdrive and overrecruits at another frequency. This over-recruitment is helpful in terms of allowing you to hear softer sounds, but it can also amplify unwanted noise.

Noise-Quieting Tools

You can close your eyes, avoid being touched, and even deprive your taste buds, but you can’t turn off your ears. They’re working all the time, even, or maybe especially when you’re sleeping. That’s one reason there aren’t great therapies for noise sensitivity disorders, Brout tells me. “In the face of sound that is either painful or that the brain is misinterpreting as dangerous, it’s really difficult to dampen the nervous system reactivity,” she says.

So it’s no surprise that Brout is a big believer in identifying tools and devices that can help quiet the sounds in your environment. The most obvious, of course, are earplugs, which dramatically reduce environmental noise by preventing sound waves from reaching your inner ear, the place that triggers your body to react to noise in the first place. Protective earmuffs operate the same way, and they’re typically more comfortable and user-friendly than earplugs. Though, depending on your environment, they may not be as practical as their smaller, less noticeable peers.

“Typical foam earplugs attenuate high frequencies like the upper keys on a piano. But there are specially designed earplugs called high-fidelity or “musicians’ earplugs” that attenuate (weaken) sound equally across all frequencies,” says Meinke, who uses myriad protective devices to protect her ears in different environments—regular earmuffs or foam earplugs when she mows the lawn, high fidelity filtered earplugs when she goes to noisy live music events or restaurants, and electronic shooter’s earplugs or earmuffs when she does firearm impulse noise research.

A more sophisticated solution—and my birthday gift from my boys last year—are Bluetooth-enabled noise-canceling headphones, which emit sound waves that complement and cancel surrounding noise. The technology allows me to listen to the latest true crime podcast or immerse myself in Spotify’s Feel Happy playlist while blocking the sound of my boys sparring in the same room.

“These tools not only minimize the physical effects of noise pollution, but they also give you a sense of control over the sounds in your environment,” Brout says. “Just make sure to do your homework before you purchase. Some of these devices are legit, and they can be a boon for people who are sound sensitive, but others are essentially useless.”

Worried about inadvertently drowning out the sound of an approaching car during your run, your crying baby, or your pooch who needs an open door to pee? Meinke says if you fit the earplugs to match the amount of attenuation you need for the listening environment, you’ll never be in a position where you don’t hear anything.

Environmental Controls

Whether you use high-tech tools or creative furnishings, Meinke tells me it’s better to spend money upfront on effective prevention efforts than paying downstream for hearing aids and rehabilitation. “You can modify your space to plan for the sound level you want to achieve,” she says. “Soft window coverings, fabric art on the walls, absorbent floorings, acoustic ceiling tiles and wall treatments. All of these things can help mute sounds.”

I don’t have heavy draperies or sound-absorbent flooring, but I now use an air purifier and white noise machine in my home office to drown out disruptive sounds during working hours. I choose meditative soundscapes on YouTube. I also asked my husband and sons for thoughts on how we could collectively turn down the volume. My youngest had an idea from school. His teacher uses a web-based tool called Bouncy Balls, to bring awareness to rising noise levels (other options include Too Noisy Lite and Calm Counter).

I pulled up Bouncy Balls on Google Chrome and watched, mesmerized, as a plethora of brightly colored circles bounced in concert with the ambient noise level in our kitchen. When the noise got too loud, based on my chosen sensitivity level, a noise alert from the site (not me) told the boys to quiet down. Soon I began placing my laptop in the center of the table at mealtimes. Yes, I know screens at mealtimes are not ideal, but neither is deafening conversation, and it did reduce the cacophony to a mere buzz most nights.

While there’s no surefire solution to quieting the mind-numbing decibel level in our home, I’ve discovered that when I use tech tools in tandem with self-care—getting enough sleep, taking breaks, removing myself from the chaos—the stressful sounds my beloved boys produce becomes more manageable.



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