I usually tell people that I ‘am oversensitive to background noise’ or ‘have a hearing problem’ if I need to explain that I find certain types of places unbearable, but actually the problem goes much deeper than that and also has a visual aspect.
Why do I want to tell this? Noise sensitivity is like an invisible handicap that is incomprehensible to most people and very hard to explain. This is my chance to explain it, in writing and with all the time I need.
Most people can effortlessly filter and sort an impressive amount of noises and visual inputs simultaneously, tuning them in or out according to their relevance. The ability to tune in to relevant conversations and ignore everything else is called the cocktail party effect. It is a truly amazing multi-tasking skill not fully understood by scientists.
I my case, the cocktail-party ability seems to be inferior to most other peoples’. I am over responsive to irrelevant sounds and other random impacts from the surroundings… it feels like missing filters. I am also bothered by visual noise such as flashing neon decorations, camera flashes and visual clutter.
When overloaded with impressions, my mind becomes slow and unresponsive and eventually crashes like a computer with too many applications open at once. I feel numb, unwell and stuck in zombie-like inertia; trapped inside my body in an state of stress and disorientation that I can not express or remove.
The crisis may improve shortly after leaving a (brief) problem situation; however often it take days to recover, where I need to be by myself in familiar, calm surroundings, sleep a lot and disconnect from the world. If I need to deal with problem situations on a daily basis then they drain all my energy and I tend to feel nauseous, exhausted or depressed most of the time. So I pick my problem situations with care. I make sure there is plenty of recovery time between them, and that they are worth the struggle.
The type of situations that tend to cause problems are:
1. Overwhelmingly noisy and confusing places
such as malls, noisy restaurants, parties, business networking events, family dinners, city train stations and all sorts of crowded reverberate halls and rooms with hard surfaces and lots of chatter and ambient noise.
The problem is that the amount of ambient noise is horrendous and often painful, but others don’t experience the same places in the same way.
Others’ ability to cope with horrific noise infernos is the real problem. There would not exist a single Westfield shopping centre, noisy restaurant or horrendous food court if everybody were like me, because those places would have no customers and all go broke within the first year.
2. Painful and stressing sounds
Loud volumes can be painful (like noisy restaurants or heavy road traffic nearby), but also specific high pitched sounds like trucks and road work vehicles’ reverse gear alarms, the relentless beeping from self-serve cash registers in supermarkets, ATMs ‘remember-to-take-your-card-and-money’ beeps and some shops’ entrance-bells. I hate certain shops and never buy anything there solely because of their shockingly loud entrance-beeps (e.g. 7-Eleven).
3. Conversations and background noise
Keeping up a conversation while surrounded by other conversations can be a challenge. I hear some words, while others ‘cut out’ due to overlapping sounds. I then try to guess the meaning based on the words that made it through, and most of the time I get most of it right enough to keep up a conversation that sounds reasonable. However, it is hard work and not enjoyable.
Conversations can be challenging even without noise for a number of reasons. With distracting and painful noise added and words missing, they are a pest. On the other hand it is unwise to tell people to piss off in a situation where one is supposed to make friends. Not talking won’t work out either, because it positions me as a weird lone wolf hanging out awkwardly by myself in a corner while everybody else is busy getting to know each other. A female lone wolf looks particularly weird. It signalises ‘looser’ and ‘out of business’ to people and I should be grateful if anyone wants to talk to me.
That dilemma is the reason I rarely enjoy meeting new people.
4. Phone conversations and background noise
Phone calls tend to be sudden, the sound quality may be poor, the person on the other end tends to be a stranger with an unfamiliar voice and accent, random polite chat with strangers is expected, and there are no visual cues to hint how the person thinks and what she/he means.
Bits of phone talks cut out due to overlapping background noise: people talking, keyboard sounds, scrambling with papers… and I try to guess the meaning based on the surviving bits while doing my best to sound fully informed and professional. I hate phone calls, but I am getting better .
5. People who talk all the time
Many women* who talk a lot are warm and friendly persons who would be great to know if they could just PLEASE STOP TALKING ALL THE TIME.
I don’t understand why they do it. Maybe it is a way to disguise a lack of anything important to say by drowning with words everybody else’s ability to think. In any case, the relentlessly interrupting river of words is maddening.
I really don’t want to be rude or cold to people. However, a never ending stream of noisy irrelevant information can quickly bring me to the brink of explosion, where I just want to run out or say something rude to clear the air and stop the talk. When I can’t escape then here we go, the root of countless family rows and accusations of being intolerant to people. I am tolerant, I just need my space to think and process what people say and can’t do that if they constantly talk. Then I’ll rather stay away.
All in all
All in all this may sound like I can hardly make my way around, but that isn’t the case at all.
First, because I have strategies to deal with most situations. For examples ear plugs help, a head set can significantly improve phone conversations, and I have social strategies and mind tricks that help me to cope and hide weaknesses.
Second, I have described the problems at their peak for the sake of explaining; but it is not always that bad because the intensity of the problems vary from situation to situation and from day to day.
Many individual situations are manageable with a combination of ear plugs and planning. It is just that all together the challenges add up and combine in troublesome ways, and they do create a number of obstacles for job search, business networking and socialising.
- The links have been moved and can be found on the link-page about sensory processing issues
Please feel free to add relevant links in the comment track!
*men too, but they rarely do that.
90 thoughts on “About sensitivity to background noise”
I also have the problem with blocking out background noise in order to hear or concentrate. After a long day in non-stop noise, my ears hurt and ring, my brain doesn’t work as well, and I feel stressed/depressed. I am beginning to wonder if I will ever be happy and successful in employment outside of my home or a quiet retail shop. My current job was fine when I was the only person in the studio, however now multiple people (and screaming kids) are in the studio and at the end of the day my ears feel like they have been physically assaulted.
In case you don’t know this, the problem is called an auditory processing disorder, with a deficiet in auditory figure ground. An audiologist can do the testing to diagnose the problem which allows the documentation needed for workplace or school accommodations, at least in America. I am still trying to figure out if workplace accommodations will ever occur, but the accommodations I received in college definitely helped me. I am working with a specialist in this area so I can keep you informed of what I learn, if you like.
Thank you very much for contributing with your experience.
What kind of accommodations did you receive in college? and yes, I would love to hear more about what you learn from your specialist.
In my case, the best accommodations are a head set (for phone calls) and ear plugs. I wouldn’t be comfortable in a constantly noisy & bustling ‘fast paced’ workplace anyway or with relentlessly approaching, chatting colleagues.
What kind of accommodations do you have in mind in your workplace? You mention a studio – which line of work are you in, and how would accommodations impact your colleagues?
I don’t think I would ask, even if I had documentation that made the issues official. I already find it hard to get and keep a job. I suspect that if I asked for accommodations and admitted to having a mysterious disorder, it would ruin my chances completely.
I am sorry I didn’t reply for such a long time! I honestly didn’t know there was a response to my post.
I worked in a small photography studio. I did a variety of tasks but really needed the earbuds when doing photo retouching or graphic design because these tasks required more concentration. This move impacted my colleagues because I was expected to greet customers who just entered (even though I was really far away from the door and my coworkers were closer to the door.) Also, they would often yell for me from a different room. An accommodation was out of the question because my boss was an extremely volatile person.
Why do you find it hard to get and keep a job? I like your tip about the headset.
I had the following accommodations in college:
* Saved seating in the front, nearest the speaker
* Extended time tests in a private, quiet area. I also wore earbuds with white noise or classical music when testing. (Or earplugs.)
* I used an FM system only twice in college. These were situations where the class had a noisy fan or was in a cubicle environment.
* I always used special paper that has raised lines to take notes. This paper allowed me to take notes without looking down so I could read the speaker’s lips. I also have divided attention issues (which means I can’t hear someone while looking at something else.)
*Homework written on the board. (90% of professors forget to do this so I have to ask them after class to double check.)
*I have trouble with fast speakers. I got a notetaker for fast speakers or used a tape recorder. The latter didn’t work because I was always too lazy to go through the entire lecture again.
MY GPA in college was a 3.6 but for a good year it was a 3.9.
I never had any adjustments at work, but will need them eventually. The DRS lady said I have to work for a place that fits my disability with reasonable adjustments. If a boss is unwilling to help you if the accommodation is reasonable, that probably won’t be a good person to work for anyway. Also think of a script like, “I have a problem where I can’t filter out background noise in order to hear or concentrate so I was wondering if I could have a couple cost-free adjustments.” The second you use the word accommodation, people think of money, always use adjustments. Also, act confident when you ask this. If you act nervous, the employer will realize you are worrying that you are inadequate, and then they will worry the same thing.
Ask for adjustments when they are offering you the job. Don’t refer to it as a disability, either. It’s a problem, a quirk. Disability sounds serious, but we all have problems/quirks.
You can buy headphones and white noise yourself to block out the noise, (etymotic research=the best!), put the phone in front of your face so you can see it ring because it flashes. If the latter is not an option there is some sort of attachment that allows you to feel the vibration. If you have documentation, you can get the Department of Rehabilitative SErvices to help you cover these costs. You really need to contact the DRS and get hooked up with someone who specializes in deaf/hard of hearing people, not learning disabilities. Everyone thinks ADP is a learning disability, but it’s actually a problem covered by audiologists and speech language pathologists.
I hope this helps.
Wow… Thanks a lot for such a long thorough answer, that is a goldmine of information! and thanks for detailing your work context… it sounds like a fairly stressful workplace and a not-so-nice boss.
Can you hear with your ear buds, or does it literally block out sound so you can’t hear what someone says?
It sounds stressful also psychologically what your co-workers expected you to do: be ready for interruptions at all time while concentrating on attention-intensive tasks like graphic design and photo retouching.
I use ear plugs a lot – the ones in the picture, and can hear talk with them (mostly). I always have several pairs on me: some are cut in halves and therefore less effective and less visible, they are for social use in calm environments. Others are unadjusted and used to survive intensively cacophonic situations like shopping centres, supermarkets, parties, dinners. I can mostly hear with them (actually, better than without ear plugs) after adjusting, but it requires concentration.
I don’t tell/show people I wear ear plugs… it might insult some (or they begin to shout instead of talking normally! 😉
I wear one half ear plug in the side towards the band when I sing in our Church’s worship team. That is a compromise between being able to hear my own voice and the instruments properly, and also avoiding sensory overload 🙂 If I forget the earplug then I quickly become stressed/tired/depressed and struggle to concentrate on singing, loosing my motivation & attention.
Thanks for all you accommodation tips and experience. And thanks for the advice for workplace accommodation strategies… I can see how mentioning the word ‘disability’ would probably be a killer (apart from the fact I don’t officially have a disability), and that remembering to add ‘cost free’ is key to a boss’ understanding!
I don’t have all the same problems as you. I can always hear a phone ring (or worse: get very startled). I didn’t have major problems with lectures/classes in school and uni- Generally, people were quiet during classes and I tend to be very inquisitive and pick up well structured information fast verbally with supporting visuals (textbooks, power point slides, drawings) so I can mostly fill out the holes when I miss bits. I’m usually extremely zealous in clarifying points of uncertainty to the point of pestering teachers with questions during and after classes, pester co-students with speculations about definitions e.t.c. and usually end up with a strong grasp of topics I spend effort on, without accommodations.
Recess, on the other hand, is a total nightmare. I tend to struggle hear what anyone says due to all the chatter, get stuck in a mind state of shock/exhaustion due to the overwhelming noise chaos … It is horrible and the after-effect can last for days. I don’t think there exist any accommodations for recesses – apart from staying away from people and noise! Which is not always socially acceptable/advisable (especially not when there are team projects ahead and it is important to find good team mates).
In addition, social expectations can be a challenge even without noise sensitivity. I don’t like chatting and mingling and am not good at it, not interested in most typical female conversation topics (boring), find informal group interaction stressing/confusing (group = more than 2-3 people), hate crowds. Then add noise sensitivity/intolerance/trouble hearing…
As for why I have trouble getting and keeping jobs: I’m not sure, it is due to a combination of factors I think. I tend to get very tired in workplaces and have a propensity to workplace depressions (= onsets in the morning when entering workplace and gradually dissolves after work).
Social friction/stress and misunderstandings are probably major factors. Social stress like: confusion/discomfort about group banter and jokes, gossip, workplace politics, social roles and workplace expectations. (I wish social expectations and and performance expectations would be spelled out rather than somehow ‘implied’).
Misunderstandings like: people interpret others actions/words/inactions by projecting attitudes and intentions onto them. E.g. ‘she never smiles and says good morning when she comes in the morning because she is rude/arrogant/boring/doesn’t care about people’. ‘She didn’t do that and that because she expects me to do her job’. ‘She didn’t do what I told her because she doesn’t care what I say’. I know I have attracted such projections in the past because I heard about them and felt some consequences – was the target of negative attention and in some cases sacked, but there was probably much more of it flying around that I never heard about.
Other factors: error prone, poor at multitasking, fluctuating attention when I ought to do things I’m not interested in (fluctuating motivation), sensitive to noise and distractions e.t.c. I think some or all of above aspects play a role for the difficulties keeping jobs.
As for difficulties getting jobs: not sure about the reason for that either. There are many types of jobs that wouldn’t be suitable for obvious reasons. Like socially crowded jobs and jobs with high expectations to mingling/diplomatical/political skills, jobs in fast paced and noisy environments, phone jobs, jobs that require great multi-tasking skills or ability to quickly pick up & remember many details (waitress-like), and jobs that don’t interest me. When that’s said, I applied for a lot of office jobs relevant to my education and got through to some interviews, but didn’t succeed at getting the jobs.
My current (part time) job doesn’t have colleagues or major noise impacts. It can be hard/draining/stressing to go out and approach and interview people, but I don’t have a work depression so far and there is no stressing workplace politics … since I work on my own. My base is my own home and my own car, which is a very controllable setting. It seems to work… only problem is that I get so drained (and shaken) after a few hours work that I can’t do much else. I need more hours from supplemental jobs/projects to earn what I need to earn, so I hope that I will become less sensitive/tired over time as the work becomes routine.
Ps. Re. Department of Rehabilitative Services, I never heard about it which is probably because it is in America (this is Australia:-) Anyway it sounds helpful and this page attracts frequent traffic presumable from people with noise sensitivity issues and some probably live in the US, so thank you so much for adding all this useful information to my page.
If you have trouble with social situations along with noise sensitivity/distraction/trouble hearing, have you ever considered that you might have Aspergers? I did an unsuccessful therapy years ago in an attempt to rid/better my noise sensitivity and discovered a lot of autistic people had the same/very similar problem.
I don’t have any trouble with social situations. I do, however, have trouble with multitasking and distractions. I am also very ADD.
I can’t hear too well with the earbuds in. I will try your earplug method.
I have a “saturation point.” If I work all day in a quiet place, I can go out to a noisy place for a little while and *sort of* tolerate it. However I can’t tolerate noisy places for as long as other people can. I know I have reached my limit when my ears start to ring, my head hurts, and my mind feels like a thousand ping pong balls bouncing all over. I also get very tired and stressed out. It can be a miserable thing to live with, if not in the right environment. I used to go to bars and take medicines that made me get remarkably drunk, and then drink a lot on top fo that, because it allowed me to deal with the noise, as alcohol dampens the senses. Sort of crazy, don’t recommend that coping method.
Thank you for your interesting comment! (and sorry it starts to get fairly messy in here… could barely find your comment;-)
I totally recognise what you’re describing as having a saturation point and can tolerate noise better when you haven’t been exposed to noise earlier in the day. Like a cup that can contain a certain amount of inputs, and when the threshold is reached then it starts to be really painful and intolerable (I didn’t come up with that metaphor myself).
I’ve also noticed that Alcohol lowers my sensitivity, and am tempted to drink a lot if I have to or really want to be at a dinner or party, to try to suppress the sensitivity. Unfortunately I don’t tolerate alcohol well, so alcoholism isn’t the solution;-) I can barely tolerate the amount that helps.
Please let me hear how it goes! I would love to know whether it can be generally helpful or whether it is just me.
I do consider that and have considered for a while. I discovered the same as you when I researched noise sensitivity a good while back in time – that the problem is typical for autistic people/Asperger’s. I have read quite a lot about Asperger’s/autism since then from different angles (mostly aspie female blogger angles). I actually do suspect that is most likely the case, but I am reluctant to draw any conclusions and am still insecure about the strength of the criteria for Asperger’s. For example, when I read about females with Asperger’s syndrome I recognise many aspects of strengths and weaknesses, but I can’t actually see the writers. Maybe they don’t talk as fluently as I do, or have other visible signs of disability that I don’t have in the way they walk, their body language e.t.c. And how literal is literal thinking? For example.
One typical autistic trait that I definitely do NOT have is a tendency to black-and-white thinking. Totally the opposite – e.g. I have trouble answering personal questionnaires because I find most of the questions ambiguous. Each may mean different things depending on the context the author had in mind, each possible answer has many grey zones, and all in all, no matter what I answer it is most likely not addressing the real meaning of the question.
(I guess this was not much of an answer!)
What kind of therapy was it that sort of ‘promised’ to help with noise sensitivity?
Re. Auditory Processing Disorder:
In my case I think Sensory Processing Disorder is more likely because I have issues with visual noise too. I didn’t write much about non-auditory aspects because noise sensitivity is the *big* problem, but I think my problem is a general lack of sensory/mental filtering capacity.
Visual noise can be things like blinking moving neon decorations and ‘too many’ flickering TV screens (omnipresent in pubs here in Australia), ‘too much’ visual clutter like colourful mismatched light decorations or supermarket shelves full of overwhelming amounts of identical things (makes no sense to me!), shopping centres, camera flashes…
Sensitivity to intrusive visual inputs and overwhelming clutter leads to stress in situations like shopping in a supermarket, eating in certain pubs, walking through a shopping centre, walking through a busy train station, attending a wedding / reception / business networking event (excessive camera flashing), usually in combination with auditory noise.
‘Too many’ different smells at once can also worsen an overall confusing and overwhelming situation, although I am tolerant to individual smells and like most smells. E.g walking in a crowd, feeling overwhelmed by all the different kinds of perfume I walk through.
In most cases it is the total overload of ‘too many at once’ auditory, visual, e.t.c. inputs that leads to a ‘shock’ mode … with intense stress, ‘mental freeze’, fatigue and social withdrawal.
It is very hard to explain. I hope it makes sense.
Non-auditory sensitivities haven’t caused any direct workplace issues and wouldn’t require any accommodations.
Yeah, System Overload! It’s hard to “keep all those plates spinning”:
And people just don’t get the idea of thresholds as being *variable maxima* that sometimes change
It’s not anything in particular (usually; except for the hyperacussis triggers) — it’s EVERYTHING!
Thank you Andrea. I have read your two posts mentioned above, and they are excellent.
To anyone who land on this page searching for information about noise sensitivity and sensory overload: I can recommend Andrea’s blog and in particular the two posts she links to in her comment above. Andrea is an excellent and very observant writer and her posts are very insightful, well structured and entertaining.
Wow, just came across this article and it is like I wrote it! What I mean to say is that I feel the same way – especially with loud lunches, people talking around me when I am trying to concentrate and work and with the non-stop talking of lots of women here in Spain where I live (men here do it too but more often it is the women). And they have nothing to say with these non-stop monologs! It seriously drives me up a wall. Very morning the bread van comes to town and alll the older ladies of my pueblo gather right outside my door where the van stops. Th 10 minute conversation they have kills me and I opt for buying bread in a bigger town when I go grocery shopping (better quality anyway) because I HATE the noise they make and it seems like they just talk to hear their own voices is all. My problem has gotten way worse since moving to Spain 6 years ago. I teach and had to quit the schools (only teach privately now) because the kids too talk non-stop, don’t listen, don’t ever be quiet and the stress for 5 years was taking a huge toll on me and my marriage. My mother-in-law also drives me crazy because she never listens to me and just talks and talks and talks – plus her voice is booming as she is a folkloric singer in the Aragon region near the pYrenees where I live. I hide a lot because I feel that no one understands what I am going through and people just think I’m rude if I don’t like to hang out at big family meals. I’m really affected by all of this and don’t know what to do 😦
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Well written. I have all the same sensitivities to noise. Also smells, textures, etc. I always need at least a day to recenter myself after being in crowds. Thanks for the post.
Thank you for your nice feedback! ‘Recenter’, that is a good expression. I say it that I need to ‘reset’ myself after enduring overwhelming situations, with peace & quiet time by myself.
Another subject that I was planning on tackling in my blog to link from my About Asperger’s page and because of my user-name. However, it won’t be as well written as this! I tend to think first in images followed by words (billiseconds after but still after) and you took the words straight out of my pictures. Some of my symptoms aren’t as bad, such as loud noises being painful, but the way you explained this is so perfect that I am jealous I didn’t do it myself.
Thank you very much for your nice words! I am happy when what I write makes good sense to others too.
I am going to link to this post from that page so that when I finally do mine people can see two different but similar perspectives. Hope that’s okay.
Of course it is!
I got inspired to write the post by a post by someone else, named ‘strategies for dealing with sensory overload’ (by Capriwim, linked to above). In a sense, it was this post and the realisation that I can use my blog to map and work with my difficulties, that activated my blog:-) Before that it was almost inactive.
Due to my fibromyalgia I frequently experience sensory onerload. This is good information and hopefully helps others to understand.
I have tried to describe this noise sensitivity to people, but they just don’t get it. Or maybe I just suck at explaining.
Now I will just refer them to this page. Well written
Thank you very much! I’m so glad that it is useful to you.
I could have written these very words!! It is very difficult to explain to someone who does not experience the world this way what you are going through. Further, it is near damned impossible to do it on the spot in the middle of overload.
After being in the house all day with three very active sons, one being a 20 month old head-banging screamer, I am usually on my way to being a head-banging screamer myself by the time hubby gets home. I literally feel like I am short-circuiting.
Ear plugs help at home. Many times I can calm down and do not yell at everyone as much if I wear them. Comforting scents help me too, because I am also overly sensitive to smells! But sniffing a favorite scented candle, or Cucumber melon scented baby wipes, also has a soothing effect.
I know I am having one of those days today because the crickets outside tonight are giving me a headache; no-one else even hears them!
True! and from the post you wrote about a cafe visit, your experience of a cafe environment causing sensory overload sounds very similar to my experience. I found that quite amazing!
I can’t start to imagine what it would be like to have screaming kids at home. I guess I would never take my ear plugs out;-) Sniffing favourite scents is a nice trick:-) The tricks that work best for me is to hum/sing, or apply tactile sensations such as touch and pressure, physical movement, touching interesting surfaces, moving in water (and even just looking at water is very soothing and encouraging;-). These things tend to help. Unfortunately nothing really works in an overload situation apart from leaving + plenty of recovery time.
A thought: I have fairly recently started to think that while most people don’t share my problems with noise et.c, these people may also miss out on some of the pleasurable aspects of sensory intensity. While sensory overload and noise oversensitivity causes problems, other sensory aspects are deeply pleasurable, soothing and calming, makes the world feel fascinating. E.g. I get can get high (sort of) from being touched under my feet, or sometimes from walking bare feet:-) or moving in water and often find it very interesting and satisfying to touch and observe things. I am not sure I would want to trade these joys for the ability to cope better with parties and dinners, shopping centres and supermarkets et.c. I don’t think I would, at this stage. But if I was in the middle of my adolescence with a long uncertain life ahead of me and lots of social pressure, I would probably.
I had been thinking when I read your comment on what I wrote about sound sensitivity that I also wanted to say something about the upside of differences in perception. Like how looking at a handful of sand can be fascinating. There is an upside to being able to take in the full detail of being outside in a natural setting, whether it is in attending to the patterns of ripples in water, or leaves on trees, or or ferns, or rocks. I wouldn’t trade it for being able to shop without being overwhelmed. 🙂
I agree with that:-)
I was also thinking that reading your description of super sharp hearing. I don’t have that… and I can see how it can make life more complicated, but in the same time it is a pretty awesome gift:-)
I know how you feel – except I recover a lot faster..
Have you seen this?
Please be ready to pause or mute sounds as this movie very well could affect you as it did to me.
I think it describes sensory overload quite well.
Thank you for your comment and for the link to the video.
Yep, as for street noise, that’s pretty similar to how I hear it. As for the cafe, not so much. I hear some sounds much louder/painfully loud, such as the Latte-making-banging, while I wouldn’t hear the pen-on-board sound the girl makes so oud (or the shoes). There are frequent high pitched loud beeps in most cafes and fast food outlets, which the video didn’t cover. There’s also typically a strong ‘wavy’ chatter background murmur (somewhat akin to the street noise scene, but with chatter instead of cars) with sudden outbreaks of painfully loud high pitched multiple-girl-laughter (like in the video, but shrieking-loud) that the video didn’t cover either. I actually mostly found the cafe sound ambience relatively pleasant, and I liked the train-like rhythm. But very well made, and great idea!
I can relate to most of your sensory issues, though not all of them. I really dislike when people are interrupting each other. I can’t hear what they say.
I hate phones as well, well in fact I quite like text messaging and using my smart phone as a small computer. But I hate talking on the phone. It interrupts me when I am busy, and it is so very hard to concentrate on what is being said. The few times I had to attend a telephone conference, I had to close my eyes in order to hear what was being said.
Like you, I avoid dinner parties, restaurants, coffee shops and similar places where I can hear other people. I have found a few coffee shops where I can find more privacy. Recently I was at a movie house and I couldn’t focus on the trailers because the two women next to me were telling me (and everybody else nearby) who they talked to at a party and about what. I couldn’t actually care less but I couldn’t ignore them either. I asked them to be quiet and they got cross and said they would shut up when the actual movie started.
I am sure that my problem is Asperger related. I am not able to block out irrelevant sounds, it is like I am missing a filter. My Asperger is also causing me to be very exhausted when being around other people, and the noise thing is contributing to the exhaustion.
Thank you for contributing with your experience:-)
‘Missing a filter’, that’s how it feels… it does sound similar. I keep forgetting how bad it is when I am not going anywhere, and then when I do go out almost can’t believe how flooding background sounds can be, particularly when people talk over each other…
It is good to hear that you have found a few coffee shops that can work for you. Have you noticed any particular factors that can worsen or improve the situation? (apart from the presence or absence of noise).
I’ve heard suggestions from an audiologist that advice for hearing impaired persons can help with this type of problems. Such as: sit close to the wall with your back towards it (less reverberance), or at least with one ear not towards the noise source. Some of these work for me in some situations – if the place isn’t too noisy.
For me, outdoor seating is usually a must with most cafes and restaurants (if I’m supposed to be communicating). But it is often not enough if there is a lot of chatter.
Yesterday, my husband and I met with a few friends and their young, talkative friends, we were 9 in total. Despite the fact that we were sitting at the outdoor table, I struggled to filter the conversations out from each other, and was getting more and more tired, depressed and withdrawn, and just longed to get away. But then I tried if my small discrete ear plugs could work and discovered that it just solved it… They gave an instant relief, and I became more social almost immediately and began to listen to some of the conversations (they proved pretty boring, but that is besides the point).
It does require extra attention to listen with ear plugs because of the lower volume of the voices, so I suppose it doesn’t work for everybody. I can somewhat amplify the sounds in my head as soon as I am not overwhelmed with inputs and able to concentrate. I have also discovered that wearing just one ear plug can help in some situations, the noise feels less intrusive when there’s ‘one side with peace & quiet’.
It is a long time since I wrote this page and surprisingly, I have managed to become better at phone talk/hearing, although background noise, distractions and also stress/anxiety can still ruin it. I can now do something in my head that makes it easier to hear what’s being said over the phone. I somehow ‘exaggerate the intonation’ in my head and ‘see’ the sound string as slightly exaggerated visual curves, and I visually sort and emphasise words in my imagination and pull them apart from each other. That helps! I use it when I sing too (in a slightly different version), it makes it easier to follow the rhythm:-)
My talking phone manners have also improved heaps during the last year or so and are, I would say, now at competent/professional level which helps with many things. I am very grateful for that. So I’m quite on top of phones now. Except I still hate when they ring:-)
Thanks for visiting and liking our blog post. Your explanation of noise sensitivity is really interesting (as are your other posts!). Aaron is much more sensitive to noise than I am (he can’t sleep if there is a tap dripping in another room, or if the fridge is humming too loudly) but it’s not as extreme as your experience. It must be quite difficult for you sometimes.
Thank you:-) I was not aware that you/Aaron had problems with noise sensitivity too. I was looking for information about camp dogs and followed the Google track to your great blog posts about Angurugu;-) .
I dream about visiting some remote Australian communities myself one day, maybe as a volunteer with a dog health programme or something like that. I’m interested in camp dogs, and also arid nature, aboriginal culture and seeing how people live out there. Your blog is good stuff for pre-travel research as well as giving some fascinating cultural insights:-)
Thanks for the feedback. I’m glad you found the posts helpful.
Going out to the remote communities is an amazing experience and definitely worth the trip. I hope you get to go yourself one day 🙂
I hope so too! 🙂
Your point at # 5 is so true, I would love to add “don’t touch me!” to it too. I have a friend who I am fond of but her need to touch drives me crazy, on top of her incoherent and constant chatter. I can only see her an hour or two at a time, max, or I will have a meltdown. Not originally from Australia, I found Australians tend to lack the “volume control button” when they talk, had to quit a job because it got so bad that I can’t hear myself think.
Love your graphics!
Touching can be very invasive too, just like relentless talk!
I didn’t include that because first of all, no one I know has the ‘social touching’ habit (apart from the familial hugs) and second, I don’t have any sensitivity issues with touch. So while I would find ‘conversational touching’ intrusive, I think most people would so that’s really the other person who has a problem. But it must be much worse for you if you are particularly sensitive to touch!
I can see what you mean with there lacking a volume control button in Australian culture … That is funny! I am not originally from Australia either, and have also noticed that Aussies tend to speak fairly loud.
Thank you for your comment and compliment.
AH! It’s not just me!
My sensitivity to background noise has pretty much destroyed my social life. But a while ago I was trying to hear what my friend Lara was saying (in a loud venue), and then she leaned over and stuck her finger in my ear. It was like magic. I could actually hear what she said. And then we went to see Uriah Heep (awesome band!) and she was standing behind me and stuck her fingers in both my ears and said “Is that better?” It was! We were right in front and I could hear her talking. She didn’t even have to shout.
Now I just have to remember to carry earplugs wherever I go.
The noise level of a hard rock concert would be pretty infernal, so I take it that your only problem with background noise is difficulty discriminating sounds in intensively noisy surroundings (which is normal, anyway). I was given a scientific explanation by an audiologist, about why ear plugs can make it easier to discriminate sound … I don’t remember the explanation, but I remember that it made good sense;-)
To me it doesn’t really matter how loud the noise is. It could be a rock concert or 2 people talking in the office while I’m trying to talk on the phone. I don’t find it painful like you, I just can’t hear what people are saying. Any other sound is just distracting to the point where the voices just disappear.
Sorry, I overlooked you reply!
Have you tried ear plugs (now – since it worked at the concert), and does it help you to hear better amidst background noise?
I remember the audiologist explained that ear plugs can make it easier to hear because it decreases the volume of sounds further away relatively more than the sound source next to you (which is presumably the one you are focussing on).
Hey. Now I’m the one who overlooked your reply.
I tried the earplugs, and no, they didn’t help. Oh well…
Just last week I was told I have an iron deficiency, and one of the symptoms is poor concentration. Maybe this hearing/listening thing is part of it. I’m trying to eat healthier, and I’m taking iron supplements. Maybe it helps
Wow, I relate so much to this post. Thank you for sharing! Background noise drives me crazy especially TVs or music. Other conversations are also hard to block out. People have accused me of eavesdropping when I simply overheard because I am so sensitive to noise. Oh well.
Thank you for your comment:-) I am glad you can relate.
This was so like reading about myself I burst out laughing at a couple of points (“if they could just PLEASE STOP TALKING ALL THE TIME”). You explain the effects very clearly.
Since you asked for relevant links… I wrote about my difficulties with conversation in the presence of background noise on my blog here.
Thank you! Great post! That is precisely how it is for me too with struggling to follow what a person says when other talk in the same time.
Thanks! I think I’d encountered the Cocktail Party Effect before but it had not really registered. It’s helpful to know that it’s a recognized phenomenon.
I wish it was possible to buy it;-)
Yes. It was one of first explanations I recognised about my noise problem and which made me aware that my problem is a sort of handicap, a lack of an ability others have and take for granted (most others anyway).
I have added it to the list of related posts.
I sure do share this issue with you! I’m a nurse who spent years sitting in a nurses station, trying to collect my thoughts and chart over the sound of people talking in the halls on their cellphones, pumps beeping, TVs blaring from patient rooms, and co-workers talking too loud. It felt like torture, and trying to quiet it earned me more than one enemy. There are many other noises that I’m incredibly sensitive to—TV commercials and people (mainly women) who talk really loud among them. I rarely watch TV because of this. My sister just visited for a week and I had to ask her several times to stop thinking out loud so much and to lower her voice when talking to me—it all made me feel crazy!
Thanks for your post—it made me feel a bit better about this issue.
Thank you for your comment:-) The nurses’ station sure sounds like a torturous place to work in…
I also find the loud talking (and loud laughter) of some women much harder to bear compared to male voices… I think because of the higher pitch (also, women often tend to talk more). I find many high pitched sounds painful and while the high pitched voices of (some) women may not be painful, they can be quite uncomfortable.
Oops—meant to say that my sister was THINKING out loud… So incredibly annoying to hear a running commentary of what’s in her head.
I corrected it:-)
You know, Anna, I’ve often been concerned that some patients have felt as I do. My most recent job has been in an inpatient hospice facility, so how terrible it would be to not feel comfort and peace in the last stage of life. Some folks seem to thrive on lots of noise and commotion, but there are many of us who do not. A few have complained about the noise level over the years…
Thanks for fixing my thinking/typo.
My husband is currently in the hospital, and he remarked that I would go insane if I ever had to be in a hospital, with all the beeping machines:-) but it doesn’t bother him at all. I think there is no reason to worry on behalf of most people (although it depends how extreme the noise level is of course); most have a remarkable ability to adjust to noisy surroundings so that after a little while they don’t hear any of those sounds at all anymore unless someone points them out.
Anna, are you in Sydney? If so, I’m in Nashville, TN, USA, but I’ve been to Australia and spent some time in Sydney. I loved the country, but my favorite place was Tasmania.
I hope your husband isn’t hospitalized with anything serious, and am glad that he is so tolerant of his environment. I would so love to be one of those people you described who can simply adjust.
Why are some of us born with such strong aversions to noise? Or do you think it’s something that developed over time?
I personally enjoy many kinds of sounds, it is only certain types of noises that I have an aversion to, and my tolerance also varies depending on freshness, mood, if I’m already overloaded with inputs etc. I think of the problem as “dysfunctional sensory filters” although what it really is, is a deficiency in the brain’s ability to process and prioritise and block sensory inputs. So it is a brain issue and neurological in my case (sensory processing disorder as part of asperger’s syndrome), but there can be other causes too. Sensory processing disorder and auditory processing disorder can also stand alone and are not always connected with autism (although autism typically involves sensory processing problems). I have been told that a damaged hearing can cause oversensitivity to noise too, so it can also be a hearing problem. Apparently PTSD can also cause sensory hyper-vigilance that can present somewhat similarly with oversensitivity to background noise et.c.
So different causes that can lead to the same outcome (or at least an outcome that sounds similar when telling about it).
In my case it is definitely neurological. I have been through an auditory examination and my hearing is normal, so the problem is the brain’s auditory processing (and other sensory processing, noise is not the only problem). The problem was definitely present when I was a kid, back then I just I couldn’t define what i was that bothered me when I was feeling invaded and overwhelmed by the surroundings and/or peoples’ communication with me, explosively irritated with people around me, drained, disconnected, unreal, miserable … That is why I hated being in kindergarden so much for example. I couldn’t think or feel good but I was unable to define why, but I can now: sensory overload all day long, every day.
You describe me quite well in this sentence, and it’s the trait that’s made me think that I should be able to get over it, and probably makes others think that I’m just a b*#ch who wants things her way all of the time:
“I personally enjoy many kinds of sounds, it is only certain types of noises that I have an aversion to, and my tolerance also varies depending on freshness, mood, if I’m already overloaded with inputs etc.”
For instance, I can listen to loud R&B music when I’m at home and in the right frame of mind, but it turns me into a wad of tight nerves when I’m driving down the highway (already overloaded)—unless I’m on autopilot during a long stretch of a road trip. Some sounds that hurts the worst are TV or radio commercials where people talk very fast, and usually loud, and TV game shows where there’s a spinning wheel and a lot of clapping, but there are countless others.
I have carried a PTSD diagnosis for many, many years, and am aware of a level of hypervigilance that when triggered (when I’m caught off guard), can scare the hell out of whoever scared me. I involuntarily scream. Just once, and then my heart pounds for while I metabolize the adrenalin that fear triggered. I know what events caused the PTSD, which began in childhood, and feel incredibly sad that even as an adult who knows that she’s safe now, I can’t change what early terror did to my brain. Do you sometimes envy those who cruise happily and smoothly through life, bothered by and fearing very little? I do.
I just wonder if other peoples chewing (with mouth closed) bothers you as much as it does my son and one of his Uncles? My Son has high functioning autism and we have noticed a milder case of this with his older brother who also has Aspergers. My daughter has auditory processing disorder but she can function quite well as long as she is required to attend to people who enunciate properly. She reads lips. This is a self taught skill she started doing at the age of 3. we have found upon closer inspection that my Mother-in-law, and 4 of my husbands brothers all have this problem to some degree. But one brother is effected as badly as my son and one of my nephews is having trouble staying focused in school due to the noise in his classroom. I have found some information on line about listening therapies that some times help desensitize a person to this ambient sound? Do you have any information regarding this type of therapy.
No, that doesn’t bother me at all.
No… but based on your description, it sounds similar to the CDs / recordings that are used to help pets with anxiety, for example dogs that are afraid of thunder or have problems with specific noises.
(I’m aware that the problem your family members have is not anxiety, just the principle with desensitising by systematic listening to the trigger-sound sounds similar)
My understanding is sensory issues are a disability under the EEOC and you can ask for an accommodation based on it. I am working to finding out what exactly my noise sensitivity issue is so the comments made have helped me to do some research in other areas. I feel that having to use headphones and ear plugs at work tend to isolate me from my work group and add to my anxiety about this disorder. Few people, especially employers, understand it so wearing ear plugs or headphones is not helping but I do use them. I was recently moved without any consideration to a cubicle that is right next to two printers and a scanner and the locked security door that thunks shut every time its used and a card has to be scanned which beeps into the worksite for approximately 40 people. In addition, the area I was moved to use to house 4 employees and now there are 9 so my nerves are frayed at work.
That is very understandable. I can imagine it is hard to naturally fit in use of ear plugs and head phones when your employers and colleagues don’t really understand what it is about, I imagine it may also make you more socially vulnerable. Your new cubicle spot sounds horrific!
I haven’t tried using ear plugs in an office environment, I’ve only worked in an office once, and it was actually an unusually quiet office (rarely any chatting going on while working, and only 9 employees). I found it socially very confusing though.
I’m glad you find the comments helpful (so do I). In your case, if the noise sensitivity is your only/main “weird” problem, then there’s a range of conditions that can cause noise sensitivity; some where it is the core problem, and others where it is just a (potential) part of a more general pervasive condition… but you’ve probably already looked into an array of possible explanations.
In my case, since I wrote this page I’ve been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome / ASD (with Sensory Processing Disorder included). That explains the noise sensitivity along with many other issues I have and have had, especially in the social area and in regard to life management. It is an official disability, but I’m not sure how to go about disclosure (or not) in relation to job search and workplace accommodations. I imagine I’ll do “partial disclosure” = explain the issues that are most relevant to my function in the particular role & workplace, and only put labels on (SPD, maybe the ASD) if I find it particularly useful in the situation.
In my current job I interview people in their homes, so every “workplace” is different, some more challenging than others. The constant interaction with strangers is socially hard and draining (and often does come with sensory challenges too), and my income is borderline insufficient, but since it is part time with plenty of recovery time, very flexible and independent, working from my own car and home office – it has allowed me to avoid most of my “usual” job issues. I’ve had this job since 2012 but it will end in June, so I’m looking for a new job and will most likely need to find a way to deal with these issues in a regular workplace myself, with ear plugs and head phones or whatever is necessary.
I just came across your post here and wanted to thank you. I’ve found it extremely difficult to explain why I feel the ways I do sometimes. Everyone has assumed that it all has to do with trauma in my history but I no longer feel that’s accurate. I haven’t known how to explain the continued anxiety and depressive episodes despite having defeated many of my demons. My hearing causes many problems for me but also many wonderful things. It’s a neat “parlor” trick and makes for great stories when I can identify a noise that sounds generic to most. An example is when my cat finds plastic to chew on, until I pause all other sounds my husband doesn’t hear it and even then can’t identify what he’s hearing. I can tell him which cat is doing something, what they’re doing, and exactly where they are. My dogs are easy because they’re different sizes. He hates when I try to sleep and hear the kitchen sink dripping, downstairs, so he usually keeps me well supplied with ear plugs.
Anyway back to the topic which is thank you for giving me the words I hadn’t been able to find on my own.
I am glad it is helpful to you:-)
I just found your post because I’m at work being totally non-production because of the constant chatter and high pitched laughter at my office….which I can still hear with my office door closed AND my earbuds with with white noise playing. I alternate between frustration, anger and depression. I do my best to skip lunch so that I can have one hour of peace. My co-workers seem okay with me closing my door all the time, but I know for sure they’d be pissed off if I asked them to not be so loud. I swear it sounds like a party out there.
I wish there was something that helped. The only thing that really works for me is to be alone so that I can control the noise (and the visual noise/clutter gets to me too). Since I work with people and have a husband I don’t get enough alone time to stay sane the rest of the time. Earplugs only take the edge off, you can still hear everything through them and they’re uncomfortable. The white noise is the best so far, but the earbuds even get uncomfortable after a full day. I wonder sometimes if I turn the white noise up too loud to help cover the office noise…so I worry about damaging my hearing. I crave silence.
That sounds like you have really severe sensory problems … and a poor workplace match (at least it is great that you have a door you can close!). I don’t know if a flexible work-from-home arrangement is an option for you, but it sounds like the current arrangement isn’t sustainable in the long run, that you’ll burn out… so perhaps you’ll need to work out a more radical solution.
Yes, ear plugs only take the edge off… For me that is usually good enough (unless I’m at a dinner party or some other intense noise inferno), because all I want is to reduce the background noise to a bearable level where e.g. sudden group laughter isn’t painful and shocking. I don’t expect silence from ear plugs. I totally get you with craving silence… I don’t have that problem myself because I have plenty of it in my current situation, but craving silence and being unable to have it, to recharge, is really awful. Sorry, I don’t know what to say, I can’t suggest anything. I hope the situation gets better for you.
Thank you for your comment:-)
Your article explained the daily challenges I have to overcome. It’s nice to know we’re not alone.
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I am 14 years old.
My parents took me to the mental hospital last year because I have depression and was self harming. One of the main reasons why I was doing this to myself is because of the problem you addressed in this post. I get panic attacks when outside, and I can’t even relax in my room without closing all the doors and windows, because the background noises like traffic and noisy neighbors really get to me. I don’t have any coping methods left to try, because I’ve done all of them. My parents don’t allow me to keeo isolating myself, but it seems like everyone, (even the doctor, whom I’ve told my problems with noise), does not seem to understand that this is an actual problem and not all made up in my head.
It’s great to know that there are still people who are experiencing the same problems.
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Thank you for your comment. I am sorry to hear that your noise sensitivity is not being taken seriously – or that is what it sounds like.
Since I wrote this post I’ve been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, which supposedly explains it for me. Hypersensitivity to noise (and/or other sensory hypersensitivities) is common in autism and also ADHD, but can also be stand-alone neurological conditions like Sensory Processing Disorder or Auditory Processing Disorder. Relevant treatment is usually by Occupational Therapists (OTs) rather than mental health professionals. An OT can work out a “sensory profile” and lay out a program of coping strategies, including equipment that can help to manage noise exposure in everyday life, and exercises that can help to cope better with sensory overload and life in general. Sadly most of that kind of services are for kids only (<18yo I presume), so since you are only 14, I would recommend looking into it while you are still young, as it may help set you on a better path. If your parents and doctor don't understand how big the problem is, perhaps it could be a good idea to carefully write an overview of how it affects you – People sometimes take things more seriously if they are in writing.
Thank you for dropping by, and good luck with everything.
What an excellent piece. I’ve been struggling to verbalise similar feelings. Thank you so, so much.