There are sounds all around us. Some of them we tune out like the hum of the refrigerator or the ticking of the clock. But some sounds pierce through our consciousness like shattering ice. The sound of a sudden siren or the boom of a thunderclap can provoke a startle response in many of us. But what happens when everyday sounds cause anxiety or even trigger a panic attack?
I know about noise anxiety firsthand as I have experienced panic attacks triggered by certain sounds. Some months after I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis I began to experience panic attacks related to noise especially when that noise was repetitive. I remember one incident when my son had friends over to play a sports game on the Wii where they run in place. I was working on the computer and heard the thundering feet above me and it sent me over the edge. I began to sweat, my heart was racing, and I felt like I had to flee. For anyone who has experienced a panic attack before, the feeling is like no other. Your body reacts as though you are under siege despite any logic to tell you otherwise. And what is more, it is very difficult to bring your anxiety down to a manageable level once you hit that peak of panic.
So when members of AnxietyConnection write in to tell us about noise induced anxiety or panic attacks, I can relate. I thought I might do a little research on this subject to shed some light on why this may happen for some people and if there is anything we can do about it.
Why do some people experience anxiety as a response to noise?
• One possibility for why some people become frightened, anxious, or even aggressive when they hear certain noises is that they have some sort of sensory processing disorder. My son who has autism has this disorder and many people who have ADHD may also have this problem. If you have a sensory processing disorder it basically means that you have difficulty modulating incoming stimuli from your senses. For example, someone who has sensory processing difficulties may perceive sounds as being much louder than other people do. Certain sounds can be experienced as painful.
• Regardless if one has an official diagnosis of a sensory processing disorder or not, it makes sense that some people are simply more neurologically sensitive to sounds and noises in their environment. For some people, there may be sounds they simply cannot tune out, which may trigger the flight or fight instinct.
• You may react with anxiety to some sounds because they have some sort of traumatic memory attached to them. For example, the individual who has had the experience of being shot at with a gun, they may relive that experience every time they hear a similar sound such as a car backfiring. It can be very difficult to re-program the bodily responses to learned fear.
• In a Psychology Today article entitled, “I Can’t Stand That Noise,” author Nando Pelusi speculates that some people may experience great anxiety over sounds which are perceived to be out of one’s control. As a result, if we tell ourselves that we can’t stand certain noises we are setting ourselves up for a continuous loop of anxiety and feeling powerless.