Noise sensitivity—technically known as misophonia—isn’t just a mild irritation or dislike of noises.
For the sufferer, the noises become overriding obsessions and can lead to depression, anxiety, and severe anger.
Growing up in the 70s, we were not tested for sensory hypersensitivities or potential disorders that kids today receive treatment, therapy, compassion, and patience for. I was also not consciously aware of the link between certain sounds and the multi-level discomfort I experienced—I was just aware of the discomfort. Acutely.
Now at age 50, I’m much more informed about how my brain is wired differently to process sounds, as well as how early life experiences could have possibly influenced my ability to integrate sound as a normal part of life.
I chose three random scenarios from my life to illustrate the effect unwanted sound has on me and how I am learning to accept the unavoidability of environmental noise and ways to deal with it.
Sometime in the 90s:
It’s Saturday morning, and we are walking through our local mall on our way to a coffee shop located within a bookstore. Instantly uplifted by the comforting aroma as we enter our destination, I am looking forward to the cappuccino I’m about to order with my usual chocolate fudge brownie. I plan to sit down and immerse myself in the latest books available from the browse section.
Suddenly someone sneezes—one of those loud, explosive events I brace myself for, as if it could cause a gust potent enough to blow my hair right over my face and burst my eardrums.
I am instantly livid. How dare he?
I swing around and glare at the unsuspecting sneezer as if he has just impaled the last living tiger on Earth. He doesn’t see me and cheerily rubs his nose as he continues the conversation with the man sitting across the table. It takes some time for the inexplicable anger and disdain I feel toward this man, experiencing a perfectly natural reaction to probably a particle of dust irritating his nasal passages, to dissipate.
Where does this overreaction come from?
Bane of my existence—team building exercises:
It takes the typical team effort for us to figure out who sits where on our quarterly team building outing. To cultivate a closer bond, we are going to watch a film together and then have lunch.
I silently eat my freshly made, warm, buttered popcorn, savouring it one by one by letting it melt in my mouth, requiring the least bit of actual chewing, mindful of whomever has to listen to me. Full of anticipation by what is about to happen on screen, and captivated by the opening scene, the producer’s carefully created mood deflates, similar to that moment you realise your crush is just not that into you.
How does this happen?
I listen to the sound a colleague, two seats away from mine, is causing as she tries to get to a chocolate-coated nut with two fingers from a hole she made on the side of the packet big enough for a maximum of one finger.
In the next scene, the producer’s intention was clearly meant to prepare us for a dramatic revelation by the complete absence of sound—no voices, no music, nothing in the background. Except: chirtschir chirchirchir chirchirchir.
Violent thoughts of ridding the planet of this noisy intruder immediately flash through my reptile brain while my cognitive brain, attempting to absorb the story, shuts off completely. For the rest of the movie, I don’t hear a single word, and all nuance by the absence of words or music is lost on me. I am vaguely aware of something in me desperately interested in following the story, but the harder I try to compose myself, chirts chirchirchirchir just sucks me deeper into the void where my enjoyment of the engrossing story used to be. Now it’s filled only with images of unspeakable acts aimed at ways to eliminate the unaware chocolate nut eater. I certainly don’t feel any bond developed by the team building exercise, to the contrary.
I was lucky that the estate agent remembered me, having met two years earlier. My dream, an apartment surrounded by trees visible through large, open windows, is finally for sale and she calls me as promised. Built on a hill in the 70s in an “established, peaceful—I automatically assume quiet—leafy green suburb,” I move in on my 40th birthday. It is undoubtedly the prime unit, right on top, on the third floor on the corner, with views over the city from every room.
Starting to unpack shortly after my birthday guests leave, I contemplate my luck, vividly imagining my days in this tranquil space ahead. Before I go to bed, I contently watch how the night air makes the city lights twinkle. I wake up to the magic forest feel of birdsong by a host of early risers: black-throated canaries, mannikins, fiscal flycatchers, and thrushes. It’s Saturday. I smile. I breathe in the scents of the frangipanis, white stinkwood, and leopard trees, and I start my morning yoga routine. I finish off with a meditation on my new eco-friendly yoga mat, intentionally bought without a design to distract me. Just a combination of my favourite colours—burnt orange and pink—to evoke a sense of aliveness and love.
In the trendy kitchen, tastefully renovated by the previous owner, I am able to catch a whiff of the majestic pines close by before the comforting smell of coffee bubbling into the moka on the stove fills me with utter content. Coffee in hand, back on the patio, I stare at the city in the distance. My gaze alternates between the trees right under my nose, and the city over there, trees right here, city over there. So I spend my first weekend in my serene little tower up on the hill.
Come Monday, I am pleased to start off with my usual wake-up routine, then yoga, followed by a deep meditation. Enchanted, I count at least 20 extra types of trees beside the pines outside my kitchen window while I wait for my coffee to brew. I’m delighted by the early morning silence after the crested barbets settle, having added their cheerful song to greet the day.
I sit down to prepare for the work week ahead. It’s just after 7 a.m. when a high-pitched, jarring sound rips through the air. I hold my breath and wait for it to pass, but instead, it just gets louder and louder. I freeze, feel my heart beating wildly around in my chest and my mind reeling from the unwelcome confrontation with such a nauseating noise, so early.
The sound is moving closer. All peace and calm are now gone from my body and mind, my palms feel sweaty, my nerves are on edge, my muscles tense, and I experience a shaky sensation in my solar plexus. I walk to the door and peer out in the direction of my torment. Pointing it like a weapon toward the concrete, he casually swings the leaf blower from side to side. After 45 minutes of unadulterated torture, I give up on my weekly planning session and get into the shower. Maybe some music will block it out.
But the persistent whooohooo will not be blocked out by anything. And neither will my mind let go of it. No matter how hard I try to focus on my breathing, or recall my meditation, or tell myself that to be equanimous come what may is what I strive for. I remind myself that it is easy to be happy when everything is quiet, to my liking, but that it is specifically during vexatious experiences that it will benefit me to practice the spiritual knowledge I have gained.
I wonder if it might be “noise” in my head that is causing the constant consternation outside in my life. I question the content and quality of my thoughts and the level of my consciousness: Why am I so aware of noise? What in me is attracting it? When I leave for work, he is still at it.
This is the shape challenge presents itself to me, in the form of unwanted sounds, essentially the definition of noise.
Today, I have gotten mostly over my reaction to the sneezers. I don’t go to movie theatres anymore since I discovered the limitless magic on Gaia and internet documentaries that infinitely surpasses the enjoyment I used to get from the big screen. The constant, mechanical noise created mainly by modern “gardeners” stay with me for now. I believe it is a curse, not only to the sound sensitive but to humans in general, and definitely to the environment, but that is a story for another day.
In the meantime, it helps me to practice compassion toward those I want to judge as inconsiderate and selfish because they don’t value silence as much as I do.
People are allowed to have different priorities in life, and they probably would be as frustrated with me for preferring the world to be dead quiet at all cost. As I have stopped judging and shaming myself, too, for having feelings of anger triggered by sounds, I am more able to observe the violent thoughts toward the originators rise before I purposefully replace them by mindfully sending energy filled with loving-kindness instead. It is literally a deliberate practice to retrain my brain. This way, I’m gentler with all involved.
Another technique I practice when I get triggered by an intrusive sound that evokes a negative reaction in me, is to become aware of what is, to realise accepting it will cause me to suffer less than resisting, and to mentally thank everyone involved in causing the noise for bringing me to a higher state of awareness, and I repeat a mantra that resonates with me until the turmoil inside me subsides.
I trust that somehow life at that very moment wanted me to become aware of my futile illusion of control, of an opportunity to detach from the enslaving idea that I need a perfect external environment to connect with inner joy.
It is not easy. I often have to do controlled breathing exercises for the physical symptoms to calm down. Sometimes, I imagine ocean waves washing away the elevated stress hormones. Often, I resort to earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones—at times, both at once.
I believe as I surrender myself to the offending sounds, releasing the urge to control my external environment, I will eventually experience it less hostile toward my inner peace. The secret, I believe, is in replacing my conditioned reaction with an intentional response.
My aim is to be able to observe, unperturbed, whatever is happening around me like the character in the video clip below, whose image I recall when faced with the anger reaction. I let the scenes play out in my head and feel composure returning to my wild imagination.