The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneExcerpted from Volume II, Issue I (February 1997)
Coping Corner


Noise! It is the bane of the HSP’s existence, isn’t it? We are more sensitive to it, plain and simple. It’s not that our hearing is better, but research shows that even on the way to the brain, the auditory input for HSPs is being “augmented.” Japanese psychologists, naturally, have studied sensitive people and noise the most—they have whole typologies of hearing sensitivity (those who notice subtleties and can only tolerate low intensity, those who notice subtleties and can tolerate a wide range of intensities, those who mainly are bothered by high intensity, etc.). The Japanese, at least, know we exist.

Unlike light waves, sound waves travel through walls. And we have no “earlids.” So what do we do? My suggestions for various situations range from the mundane to the cosmic, gleaned from everybody I could find, including a charming anonymous acoustical consultant who gave me a half hour of free information.

1. Noise, noise everywhere—except behind your earplugs. Earplugs don’t eliminate all noise. But they sure help. And yes, dear cautious HSP, I think we will hear a smoke alarm through earplugs. (Although of course I am not making that a promise.)
You can find earplugs in most drugs stores, so I suspect that more and more people are getting tired of noise. A good brand, I am told, is made by E. A. R. Whatever the brand, be sure to get the ones for keeping out sound, not water. The best type seems to be the ones you warm up and roll around in your fingers, then squash them into your ears where they expand. Be sure to follow the directions, including tossing them out from time to time and going with fresh ones. And check with your doctor if anything unusual is going on in your ears.
Earplugs are handy for places like noisy trains or loud concerts, but don’t forget using them for sleep. Eyeshades are nice too. I use both now and seem to sleep better, especially in new places.
Or for sleeping there’s the pillow method, which doubles the earplug power and eliminates the need for eyeshades. Earplugs don’t work better than they do because to some extent sound is conducted to the ear from the rest of the head. So for an added bit of quiet and sense of protection when sleeping, I sometimes put a very light feather pillow over my whole head. You just have to remember to take it with you when you turn over.

2. Noise you can fix with a little more money. Noisy refrigerator? Quiet ones are made. Noisy phone? Own one that allows you to turn off the ringer. And digital answering machines are quieter than the clicking tape ones. (Or put your answering machine in a drawer.)

3. Noise and the Law. Most towns have noise ordinances and rules about quiet times. Find out what they are for where you live and work. Also, structures near noise sources like freeways are supposed to be built so that they are especially quiet inside. If you live or work in such an area, find out if your structure is in violation of those ordinances by calling in an acoustical consultant.
If sound travels with absurd ease in the building where you live, so that you know more than you ever wanted to about your neighbors’ lifestyle, the structure may violate building codes. Again, call in an acoustical consultant. They are listed in the Yellow Pages.

4. Noise in the workplace. Find out if others are bothered. If you are not the only one, and especially if you can argue that productivity is being affected, or other costs like health care or absenteeism are increased, then you should be able to get action.
If it’s just you, consider whether you have enough “Brownie points” to be able to ask for special treatment. If you are the only one who can solve certain problems, you are in a better position to say, “Sure, as soon as you turn off the radio.”
If you and your sensitivity are not (yet) a respected asset within the organization, you probably are better off not asking for help. You may just have to change jobs or wear those earplugs.
Any request at work requires, I think, that you think about how it affects the organization’s bottom line. You must also consider your immediate superior’s point of view. If it’s good for you, but you can’t put it in terms of how it will help the goals of your boss or the organization, it won’t fly. Leave at home any fantasies that the organization is going to be a good parent and take care of you just because you have a problem. It’s the nineties.

5. Noise in restaurants and other places that ought to be relaxing: In the nineties the trend has actually been to make a noisy dining atmosphere. It is supposed to signal that you are dining where the action is. An open kitchen, sign of the new gourmet interest, and a large space where one can see and be seen—all of these are supposed to add to the current preferred ambiance, and it also adds to the noise. (The supposedly preferred ambiance also helps a restaurant’s budget. The carpets, linens, drapes, and so forth that dampen sound are expensive to keep clean.)
Sound is one of the last things that restaurant designers pay attention to, and it is hard for them to predict until everything is installed. However, once a restaurant is operating, those working there know which are the quiet corners. Some restauranteurs are deliberately designing a quieter section. So like the non-smoking section, help may be on its way. The main thing is to speak up and ask for quiet. You just may get it. And if enough of us ask for it, it is definitely going to start being available.
The same goes for movies—they get louder and louder, because supposedly people like that. So rent them. Then you control the sound. Or go for a walk in the woods. Don’t let the non-HSPs define for you what’s entertaining. Let your sensitive body tell you what it would enjoy.

6. Fancier solutions for where you live. First, figure out if the noise is airborne or structure borne. If the source of the noise is outside the building, it is airborne. If it is inside, at least some of it is probably structure borne and coming through the walls, floors, or ceilings, which act as conductors of sound waves. If you aren’t sure, again, you can hire an acoustical consultant.
To keep out airborne noise, the strategies are a bit like keeping out cold drafts. Most noise is coming in through windows and doors. So, you (or a handyperson) can put in a second window—inside if yours is flush with the outside, or an outside window if yours is set in. The second window should have very thick glass, more than quarter-inch and laminated if you can afford it. You also want as much space as possible between the existing window and the new one. They must not have anything touching between them, as that would conduct sound. These windows should not be openable. You want to caulk and seal everything tightly along the walls. You only need to do this on the side of the building nearest the noise, so you can open other windows for air.
Any doors on the noise side should be thick and tight fitting—hard to open and close.
As for structure borne noise, you can build a whole new wall on the noisy side, completely structurally separate from the old wall. Nothing touching. The nails connecting it to the building’s studs should be set into “resilient channels” to absorb energy. This new wall should be a double wall itself, with fiberglass between, and the side towards you should be 3/4” or 1/2” sheetrock.

7. When there’s really no escaping it. First, be sure you have considered all the options. We HSPs can be awfully passive in our acceptance of things. Try a polite request or a change of seats, of rooms, of companions. One person told me she had ridden for months in a vanpool in which someone used a cellular phone to make loud, long business deals. After understanding she was an HSP and developing some respect for her own needs, she complained to this person. The yakker was truly surprised that it had been a problem, but stopped.
Sometimes noise can be stopped from inside. A student in one of my courses had been raised in a terribly noisy urban ghetto environment and he developed an amazing ability to shut out all noise. This was not dissociation, but entirely voluntary. So let his experience inspire you. Indeed, in a lesser way, many HSPs have told me that they have become used to certain noises around them; it just doesn’t bother them any more. Don’t rule out that possibility for you too.
There are times, however, when you are truly helpless. When I am faced with noise I can’t eradicate or block in any way, I fall back on the advice about noise that a meditation teacher gave me: “The ocean cannot escape it’s waves.”
That is, at the deepest level of consciousness, we are one with those damn jack hammers, so love them as much as you should love the self whom you want to provide with quiet. Or, we are not anywhere entirely by chance, and the jack hammers are your waves, a part of your fate. They are your teachers today, hammering home your need for more patience and acceptance.

8. Noise and stress. Although I know of no research to prove it, I am certain that noise bothers us more when we are stressed and overstimulated already. I know that I often displace other feelings of upset onto noise, becoming upset about that instead. If we have experienced a great deal of stress in childhood or adulthood, that reduces our resilience to new stresses, and that must include noise too. So do what you can to stay rested and in good health, in a good mood, and in a good social environment—which are all wound together for HSPs anyway.

9. Reframe your thoughts about the source of the noise. The perfect way for me to be tortured by noise is to tense against it and feel victimized. That especially happens when I am angry at the ones causing the noise. Maybe I asked for quiet and got no response, “no respect.” I feel victimized. But I am really a victim of my own rage. If I had wanted that noise—say, I wanted pot holes in my street fixed and the crews had finally come in with their jack hammers—I would welcome the racket, even during meditation. “Something’s getting done.”
So get creative. If you are being bothered by the noise of neighborhood children or barking dogs, try getting to know the kids or the dogs. I know I always feel better about the noise made by friends of mine—canine, feline, juvenile, or whatever. In conclusion, do all that you can about the noise in your life. Not only will it make you happier, but the effort might help you grow in assertiveness, inner strength, and health.

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