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.
What are some ways to overcome noise anxiety?
• If your noise anxiety is causing you to be unable to sleep, work, or function then it is definitely time to seek the help of a mental health therapist. Your therapist may use cognitive behavioral therapy to help decrease your fear response to your trigger noises.
• If you think your anxiety over noise may be caused by a sensory processing disorder, a mental health therapist or even an occupational therapist may be of help. My son who has autism was taught to overcome his fear of sounds produced by hair dryers and leaf blowers by gradually de-sensitizing him to these sounds. One way to begin the de-sensitization process is to play a recording of the sound that the person can control. In this way the individual can acclimate to the sound in small increments over time.
• If there is a way to change your environment to reduce stressful sounds, this is always a useful option. Some people may move from the city to a quieter environment and some people may even switch jobs to get away from toxic noise. One of the best things I have done for my mental health is to move away from the city where there was constant noise and traffic to more peaceful surroundings.
• Sometimes it is not practical but some ear plugs or an iPod playing relaxing music may help to drown out anxiety producing noises. Be sure, however, not to use ear plugs or listen to music in environments when you need your hearing for safety.
Do any of you suffer from noise anxiety? What helps you the most to overcome this type of anxiety? How do you cope? We love hearing from our members. Please share your ideas, thoughts, and experiences here. You just might help someone else in the process.