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HSP Wellness: The Highly Sensitive Person and Coping With Noise Sensitivities

Updated on May 10, 2017
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Peter learned he was an HSP in 1997. As a student of Sensitivity, he has met 100's of HSPs in person and writes extensively about the trait.


Noise and the HSP: A Common Source of Overstimulation

When you're a highly sensitive person (or HSP), noise can be an extremely invasive, distressing, and overstimulating part of life.

In the course of learning about the deeper intricacies of being highly sensitive, it's important to remember that the trait is about a lot more than emotional and psychological sensitivities. A major part of what can make life challenging for HSPs comes from our surrounding environment, in the form of various physical sensitivities.

Everybody is sensitive to noise—to a degree. For HSPs, however, noise can be a pervasive and persistent issue that makes life difficult and even unpleasant. Noise sensitivities show up in a myriad different ways for different HSPs; in this article we'll examine some of the ways intrusive noises affect us... as well as what we can do about them.

It is unclear whether or not the average HSP actually has a more acute sense of hearing than the rest of the world, so for this article I'll primarily focus on the fact that we tend to notice what we hear far more than most people. And even if you're not an HSP—but tend to be sensitive when it comes to sound—this article may offer you some helpful tips, anyway.


About "HSP Wellness" and Being a Highly Sensitive Person

If you are completely new to the idea of being a "Highly Sensitive Person," allow me to recommend that you first read my introductory article about being an HSP.

It's very important to understand that being an HSP is about a lot more than just "getting your feelings hurt easily" or being "emotionally fragile."

This page is part of a growing series of articles focusing on "HSP wellness"; that is, exploring daily practical ways to make life easier and more enjoyable, when you're a highly sensitive person.

Please remember that "High Sensitivity" is not a "diagnosis" and there is no "cure" for it. Rather, it is part of the normal spectrum of human emotions and it affects approximately 15-20% of the world's population, regardless of gender, age, race or nationality.

HSPs and Noise: Mechanical and Electronic nuisance sounds

Repetitive mechanical or electronic noise is one form of sound intrusion that bothers many HSPs, often to the point of "driving them to distraction." This type of noise can be particularly troublesome in work environments where we generally have less control over our surroundings, and may not be able to just get up and move to a less noisy location.

An additional challenge is that many of the people around us do not actually hear these sounds—or are not bothered by them—which can lead to the HSP being perceived as "overly finicky" or "high maintenance."

Some good examples of intrusive mechanical and electronic include:

  • The faint buzzing sound of fluorescent light fixtures. Although too subtle for most people to notice, they are often a source of irritation for HSPs.
  • A squeaking fan in the air conditioner outside the window, or even off in the distance. I used to live in Texas where the sound of air conditioners running were a normal part of summer, and the sound of a squeaky fan somewhere in the neighborhood could keep me awake for hours on summer nights.
  • A computer fan that makes a high pitched whine can be a tremendous distraction. It becomes even worse if there's a slight change in its pitch, suggesting that fan might be ready to break down.
  • The ticking of an alarm clock (although some—including myself—actually find it comforting) bothers many HSPs.
  • An oversensitive car alarm in the neighborhood going off several times a day. Although this is an annoyance for most people, non-HSPs seem better able to "tune out" such a sound.
  • An unbalanced ceiling fan that "clicks" or grinds slightly when it runs. I used to have one in my bedroom that ran quietly enough, but it would "sway" slightly, causing the chain that controlled the light to make a sound.
  • The sound of a refrigerator compressor, especially one that runs unevenly, like it's threatening to go out.


Noise Sensitivity is often an Inherent part of Being an HSP

In her self-test for High Sensitivity, Dr. Elaine Aron includes a number of questions that relate directly to the issue of being sensitive to noise.

First of all, if you combine the idea that an HSP is "easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input" and seems "to be aware of subtleties in their environment," a high level of awareness of sounds is simply a natural extension of the core trait.

In addition, one item on Dr. Aron's sensitivity inventory literally reads "I am made uncomfortable by loud noises," and a total of six other questions directly or indirectly addresses the issue of noticing, being bothered by or startled by various sounds... suggesting that noise sensitivity is very much part of the trait.

Of course, sound sensitivity is not all bad. Sometimes it means HSPs are aware of something that could become a problem—from mice trying to get into the attic, to a refrigerator compressor on its last legs—before other people, and can thus take appropriate action before there's a serious problem.

HSPs and Noise: Annoying "Organic" and Intermittent Sounds

There are also a number of more "organic" or intermittent noises that can be a great source of distraction and distress for HSPs. Consider these, for example:

  • A neighborhood dog that seems to eternally bark at everything, including its own shadow. Of course, this is a noise that probably bugs most people... but it's generally much easier for a non-HSP to "tune it out," after a while.
  • Having upstairs neighbors whose footsteps are clearly audible as they as they walk back and forth-- maybe there are certain board in their floor that squeak.
  • The sound of leaf blowers and lawn mowers being used nearby—or even in the distance. Sometimes a sound you can "barely hear" can be the most annoying.
  • Music being played in the apartment or house next door. Again, not necessarily just LOUD music.
  • The sound of dishwashers and washing machines through the walls or ceilings. Sometimes it can even be your own.
  • Traffic on a road nearby—especially the sound of sirens from police cars, ambulances and fire trucks.
  • A house mate or partner/lover who tends to snore loudly.
  • The rope on the neighbor's metal flagpole, which beats against the pole every time there's a strong wind.
  • And even as I write this, our whole-house water softener is "making brine," a noisy process that only happens about once a week, for 30-45 minutes.

Are YOU Sensitive to Environmental Sounds?

Now we've looked at a couple of different categories of sounds. How do they affect YOU? You can also leave further comments below the poll.

Which best describes you?

See results

Pause for Contemplation

Now that we've covered some different types of sounds that often are a source of distress to noise sensitive HSPs, what sort of noises bother you?

Leave a comment and share your experience with other readers!

The article continues below the comment section!


Why DO HSPs Have "Issues" with Noise?

So what is the actual problem with noise, when you’re a highly sensitive person?

Because HSPs notice the noise—and then tend to “process it deeply”—these sounds start eating away at our “available bandwidth” for living. You might describe it by saying that they start robbing us of our ability to have the “quiet enjoyment” of our life. After a while—when combined with all the other challenges life throws at us—the noise starts to become overstimulating. Of course, when we become overstimulated we become less effective in the world, not to mention grumpy and irritable.

As a secondary issue, when noise does overstimulate us, we also face criticism from those around us, who might make hurtful statements about our being “too sensitive.”

Are we "too" sensitive?

Well, we really don't have a choice... and the word "too" is a matter of perception. The question can't really be answered honestly because we don't actually have a choice in the matter. As a metaphor, think of a radio. The radio can't "choose" whether or not to receive a signal-- it simply does. What we can do, as HSPs, is learn life skills to help us manage the overstimulating effect of environmental noise pollution.


How HSPs can Best Deal with—and Manage—Environmental Noise

The good news is that there are things HSPs can do to minimize the intrusion of annoying and overstimulating noise.

Of course, remedies will tend to depend somewhat on individual situations. When eternally generated noise is interfering with our sleep, usually the best thing we can do is try to muffle it. There are two approaches we can take: (1) do our best to sound insulate our space and (2) invest in a really good "white noise machine," or CDs/MP3s with pleasant sounds designed to override abrasive sounds.

I use the term "white noise" non-scientifically here, simply to mean something we can deliberately put in the "foreground" of our soundscapes, in order to help muffle the background that's bothering us.

Personally, I prefer environmental "rain" or "wave" sounds, which can be very effective in drowning out background irritants while adding a pleasant and relaxing sound to our foreground.

Some HSPs prefer to use soothing meditative music-maybe flute or piano-to listen to while going to sleep. Even though music is less effective in drowning out annoying sounds, it does tend to serve as a way to "re-focus" our listening attention from the annoying background to our own positively generated foreground. I have often listened to peaceful music while reading before going to sleep... only to discover that I fell asleep with the music on!

Shown below is another personal favorite CD; of course, there are many other ways to create a beautiful, relaxing and "HSP-friendly" sound environment.

Healing Sounds of Nature - Tropical Rainforest With Frogs, Rain, Thunder and Waterfall (2 CD Set)
Healing Sounds of Nature - Tropical Rainforest With Frogs, Rain, Thunder and Waterfall (2 CD Set)

I personally prefer disc one of the this 2-disc set, but I'm partial to ocean/rain sounds. I use this mostly as a backdrop for meditation, but I've also let it run in the background while falling asleep.


Managing the Extreme HSP "Startle Reflex"

No discussion of HSPs and noise sensitivity would be complete without mentioning the issue of having an "elevated startle reflex."

It's very common for this to be an issue-- you're not aware that someone has walked up behind you; then they touch your shoulder or say something (even quite softly) and next thing you know you have to be peeled off the ceiling, while your heart pounds wildly. Sound familiar?

It probably does, as it does for many HSPs. In fact, one of the questions on Elaine Aron's sensitivity self test reads "I startle easily."

Of course, there's nothing we can do about having an extreme startle reflex-- the best countermeasure is simply to be aware and mindful of our surroundings, so things don't sneak up on us so easily.

We can also use that same mindfulness to try to put ourselves in physical places where we have more control over what's behind us, even if we can't see it. We can choose to sit in places where we have the wall at our back, or place our work table in such a location that there's not a traffic way behind us. If we tend to get startled by a suddenly ringing telephone, we can turn the ringer volume way down, so the noise doesn't sound quite as intrusive. Similarly, we can choose a "soft" ringtone for our cell phones, so they don't startle us as much.


When you need SERIOUS Noise Reduction

For the most pervasive and "intrusive" sounds, sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves is invest in a pair of really excellent noise canceling headphones. This is one area in which I have found that quality (and the attendant price, alas) really DOES matter, but it can be oh-so-worth it!

I have spent a fair bit of time exploring ways to block out noise, be it from the air conditioner I used to have outside my window, or just things like airplane noise while traveling or being in public spaces. There are lots of "budget" ways to go, but in the longer run they really don't work well for HSPs.

Earplugs—even ostensibly "good" ones—only block out so much background noise. But frankly? They are unpleasant to wear. Even the soft, foamy ones that configure to your ear are still bothersome. I have sensitive ears (many HSPs do), and I'm not talking about noise, here.

There are also "ear bud" and "lightweight" earphones that claim to be noise reducing, but my experience—which is backed up by a number of other folks I've talked to—is that they just don't do a particularly great job. And they may be light but they are not that comfortable... and you'll find yourself "fidgeting" with them, quite a lot. Are they less expensive? Absolutely!


Which Sounds Affect You The Most?

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      Betsy 3 weeks ago

      The list is LONG so I'll only name a few: screaming, squealing kids...heel thumpers in ANY direction in an apartment complex (thankfully I moved into a single dwelling, stand-alone house)...any kind of motorcycle NOISE...vibration buzzing noise of high tension wires or power substations (I'm extremely sensitive to EMF's or electromagnetic fields)...fireworks...cell phone yappers...people that won't STFU...street/highway traffic...high powered rifles at a shooting range...chainsaws...loud people...ETC

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      Deb 5 weeks ago

      Wow! I thought my husbands noise sensitivity was due to a high stress job, but after this article and reading comments, I believe he is an HSP. He is tolerant with consistant noises like a fan, but the dumpster divers who dig for cans in our apartment complex, as well as the shrill dog barking and little girl who is forced to practice violin, really drives him nuts. He runs around slamming windows shut and turns on "relaxation" music that's may or may not drown the noise. What can I do to help him? Is there anything I can do?!?!

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      Jackie-O 6 months ago

      What really bothers me is music and conversation that's not my own; or any other noise made by neighbors or by people in the street; or by those who seem just plain indifferent to others' comfort. My heart rate increases to the point where I am so anxious, I lose my appetite, become incapable of doing anything but just being fixated on the distress I feel, and want to just curl up in a ball and cry. I feel trapped and do not know what to do about it. I sometimes imagine myself going stark raving mad and wanting to die just to end the torture. I notice that the disturbance makes me feel angry---angry that other people are so inconsiderate, especially when I always take great pains to respect others' rights to peace and quiet.

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      ScoutMidwest 7 months ago

      I'm an HSP - constant mechanical sounds, like an AC fan, don't bother me as much as intermittent sounds - e.g. - an AC fan that cycles on and off. Although when a constant sound stops, I usually take a deep breath of relief. Organic sounds ten to really bother me - sniffling, for example. A person talking who really needs to clear their throat; certain types of voices - especially high pithched. Public places with high ceilings and lots of echos are very difficult for me. Driving on the highway with heavy truck traffic is also very hard.

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      LG 8 months ago

      Music. Music disturbs me more than anything in the world.

    Bose QuietComfort 25 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones for Apple Devices, Black
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones for Apple Devices, Black

    These are very lightweight, have full soft over the ear cuffs (important!), long battery life and the audio part is of excellent quality.

    It's also nice that you can plug the (pretty much) universal jack into anything from your iPad, iPod or smartphone to the seat controls on an airplane. Or your computer audio outlet.

    What's important to know is that the noise cancelling feature works with the audio, so your listening experience isn't just one of "using music to drown out the background noise:" you can actually listen at a very low volume.

    I am also told that Bose has excellent customer service-- although I have never had to actually use it!


    For Sensitive Ears: The BEST Noise Canceling Headphones

    As mentioned previously, if you are serious about creating your own personal "oasis of peace," your very best bet might be to invest in a pair of high quality noise cancelling headphones. I've looked at and tested others, but Bose really has this particular technology figured out. Yes, you may end up spending almost $300.00, but I can't overstate the importance of NOT trying to cut corners here.

    I personally have and use the previous model of the ones listed at right; for me, they are especially important for travel.

    Like much top brand audio gear, you may not be able to find these on "deep sale" at some Big Box Store; Amazon's price seems about as good as any.

    Now, as an HSP, I do want to share one important piece of information: The particular type of technology used in authentic (as in, "it actually works") noise cancelling equipment can feel a little "unusual," or even "creepy" until you get used to it.

    When the system is active and you're wearing them for the first time it might feel like there is a slight "pressure" on your ears. For someone with sensitive ears, that might feel a little "alarming" at first (it did, for me) but it's not painful, it's perfectly natural and it actually doesn't take very long to get used to.

    General Resources for the Highly Sensitive Person

    Below are a variety of helpful web sites for HSPs, where you can find more information and learn about the trait.


    We Live in a Noisy World!

    We live in a sound-filled world, and it seems to be getting louder every day... and there is really no getting away from that. When you're a highly sensitive person, this "wall of noise" can feel quite overstimulating and distracting.

    However, we can't expect the world to change to accommodate our needs for quiet surroundings. Instead, the onus falls on us to create our own peaceful "oases"—real, or virtual— where we can relax during those times when we don't have to engage with the noisy world. We can also make "less noisy" choices, when it comes to lifestyle, places to live, work and so on.

    We can help ourselves by striving to be aware of our surroundings, and through learning how manage our immediate environments and our lives in such a way that the noise around us is kept at a "dull roar," rather than an outright din.

    Thank you!

    Thank you for reading this article about HSPs and noise sensitivity. Comments and feedback are always welcomed!

    If you found this article useful or helpful, please share it with others. At left, you'll find some nifty "social media share" buttons to help you do so.

    Why do I ask? The more the world knows about and understands high sensitivity, the easier our lives-- as HSPs-- will be!

    © 2013 Peter Messerschmidt

    Share Your OWN Experience! Are YOU noise sensitive? Do you have some good tips for dealing with unwelcome noise?

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        Stu F 5 months ago

        I have tinnitus and find that humming noises - especially from neighbors cause me major problems. They have recently refurbished and installed a new central heating system which clicks on/off every 10 minutes for 10 minutes. It is less than 30db, but I have to wear ear plugs at night because of it. Ear plugs plus tinnitus is not good, but at least the noise is generated by myself so less annoying.

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        Jenny Kind 10 months ago

        Ah! I don't know how I managed to miss the advice at the end...? Going back to finish reading.

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        bui 23 months ago

        Mindfulness, 0r any meditation helps deal with noise. Personally, I feel that it's crucial for HSP's to learn to tolerate noise whilst residing in cities, as otherwise we're in danger of going mad.

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        Christophe 2 years ago

        NNoise cancelling headsets produce a hissing noise, which I find highly irritating. I d imagine some Hsps would too. Do you know of a noise cancelling headset that doesn't t produce hissing? Many thanks

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        sousababy 3 years ago

        Sometimes I startled easily - I do find that some "white noise" in the background helps me a great deal.

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        nicey 3 years ago

        Well, I live in a country where churches and mosquues make loud noises. Neighbours play their music so loud to the extent I get stressed up when I come back from work.

        I like the layout of your article.

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        GabrielaFargasch 3 years ago

        Wow! I am amazed that others feel the way I do.... lol

        I thought I was the only one....

        Sleeping at night it's always very challenging... Even though I have been married for 23 years I cannot sleep in the same room as my husband since the slightest movement wakes me up. I need heavy wax ear plugs or headphones with rain sounds loud to block all the outside noise...I am condidering getting soundproof windows too...

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        anonymous 3 years ago

        Great article, thanks! Especially at home this bothers me because it feels like home should be a safe haven. I live in a city with downstairs neighbors so it's impossible to avoid. The loud volume on the TV or radio and trying to have a conversation is a huge bother to me. In general, the volume being not quite right on the TV or radio makes me feel out-of-sorts.

        When my dog is barking, it sends me over the edge the minute he starts. Like, I'm already frazzled, even if he was being quiet and calm two seconds ago. I'm a nanny and when the kids start talking at me at once, I have a hard time focusing.

        At night, I'm really sensitive - no surprise there. My partner could sleep through anything but if the fan is making a funny noise, or a laptop is in the bedroom and its fan is audible, if the neighbor's fan or AC is loud... I used to have upstairs neighbors who snored so loudly, it was like they were in my apartment! Made me crazy! Every once-in-a-great-while my partner will snore and the second it starts, I am wide awake and I have to nudge her. She thinks I'm being impatient and insensitive, but she doesn't understand!

        Thanks for your article. Every time I read about this trait of mine, I remember I don't have to feel "crazy" or needy or the like - it's just an intrinsic part of me and I'm not alone!

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        Peter Messerschmidt 3 years ago from Port Townsend, WA, USA

        @HspTweets: Thank you for your long response!

        I shall probably add a section on meditation as a helpful tool for getting better centered to deal with noise. I do walking meditations on the beach, ALL the time. I find that counting off my footsteps (to four, or to ten) eventually becomes like the beat of a shaman's drum... and all other intrusions fade into the background. In general, I think many HSPs benefit from some form of eastern mindfulness, meditation or martial arts practice.

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        anonymous 3 years ago

        Most noises bother me. A problem I've had over the past 4 years is the constant noise of my ears ringing. I've been to every kind of doctor imaginable, and they have found nothing wrong with me. At times it can drive me stark raving mad! I have to have noise at times to drown out the sound in my ears, and then both noises bother me! Ear plugs make the ringing worse. Any suggestions?

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        HspTweets 3 years ago

        Noise has always been one of my big issues in life. Noise is something you can't ever completely get away from. You can try to manage it, minimize it, avoid it, mask it, live with it or complain about it, as much as possible, and all that can help somewhat but the problem persists to some degree.

        It is especially maddening to be in a room with loud TV/radio/commotion going on and trying to listen/talk with someone at the same time. My mind is constantly pulled in two directions. I insist that the sounds be turned off, we move to a quieter space, or else I leave if possible.

        In times of stress I am more vulnerable, and prone to being less capable of taking any effective action. Being trapped in a space with loud talk and/or noise can quickly become overwhelming. I leave if I can, and avoid these spaces as much as possible. If I can't leave (at work) I try to negotiate for more quiet if possible.

        If none of this works, what do you do?

        Another possible solution anyone could try, if they haven't already given it an honest and thorough period of pursuit, is meditation. This is an 'internal' approach rather than external. We can never completely control external things. We may not be able to completely control internal states either, but it is something we potentially have a greater amount of control over since it is 'our' space.

        Meditation helps quiet the mind and reduces our reactivity to all stimuli. The stimuli may still be there but we don't react to it as strongly. We learn to stay centered more of the time and not get thrown off by unexpected external activity.

        Elaine Aron, in her recent talk, told us she meditates twice/day and has done so many years, as part of her self-care program and finds it very helpful.

        Meditation has been helpful to me in reducing reactivity. It's much better than drugs/alcohol which have side-effects and hang-overs. You may need to stick with for an extended period before seeing/feeling any obvious results. It takes self-discipline.

        Some people may say they cannot sit still long enough to meditate. If that's you, there are movement forms of meditation that can be just as effective:

        -Tai Chi



        -Hatha Yoga


        -Walking (I do this one a lot)

        Almost any activity in life can be turned into a form of meditation. It may take a lot of practice. Persistence is the key.

        Krishnamurti, an Indian philosopher, has said that enlightenment embodies mind and spirit becoming one, so that there is no difference between the mediator and the meditation.

        You can learn how to do one simple form of meditation in the book [i]The Relaxation Response[/i] by Herbert Benson, M.D., based on the Transcendental Meditation method.

        For a free online audio course on Mindfulness Meditation see my Facebook page.

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        TapIn2U 3 years ago

        I get irritated to unwanted noises, too. Sundae ;-)

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        Peter Messerschmidt 3 years ago from Port Townsend, WA, USA

        @Kim Milai: Thanks for your comment! I do think a large part of our issues with unwanted ambient noise is that it distracts us; takes part of our attention AWAY from the things that are really important to us.

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        Kim Milai 3 years ago

        I'm a musician but unwanted noise drives me crazy.

        I once taught music in a room with fluorescent lights and that hum was very distracting. I'm getting more sensitive as I get older.

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