I’ve always had sensitive ears. I have vivid childhood memories of finding some sounds deeply irritating – such as the ticking clock in my mum’s room – or distressing – emergency vehicles going past. Unlike most of my friends I had to have complete silence to focus on my homework, and I still can’t read if there is any background noise.
I never really grew out of my sensitive hearing, which wasn’t a huge amount of help when I joined the Army Reserves. The audiologist there declared that I had bionic hearing as I could hear such high frequencies. Mind you, I think the rifle range changed that pretty quickly!
When I lost my hearing on one side my working ear became extremely sensitive. I think that was partly because I was frightened that loud noise might kill the hearing in my good ear.
I also found normal environmental noise as simply too loud (known as hyperacusis). Like many who live with the condition, general noise made me stressed and quite panicky. Noise made my working ear hurt and I would block that ear or try and escape the noise if I could.
Many of my tinnitus clients have similar noise sensitivity. They worry that certain sounds will cause a tinnitus spike, and can become quite anxious about going out and about in case they come across the loudness, frequency or specific noise that they fear. That can mean they stop socialising, going to the mall, or watching their kids play sports.
My sound sensitivity is still there to a degree (it always will be as it’s something I’ve had since being a child) but it is so much better than it used to be. Here are the three key ways I learned to reduce the suffering and impact on my life my sound sensitivity caused:
Use ear plugs wisely
One common action of people with reduced sound tolerance is trying to avoid loud sounds. It seems like a perfectly logical, common-sense precaution. But it can actually backfire on you; making your environment quieter means your auditory system becomes more sensitive to sound. So, tempting as it is, try not to use ear protection for normal day-to-day activities, such as putting crockery away (a particularly challenging sound for me even now!).
Of course, if you are doing a noisy activity, such as leaf-blowing or using power tools then you absolutely need to protect your ears. And if you are staying for a period of time in a noisy environment, such as a sports game, or watching fireworks it is sensible to stick in some good quality ear plugs.
Set a limit on noisy environments
It’s surprisingly easy to let tinnitus and our fear of loud sounds control our life. You avoid a couple of parties, or choose not to go and see a band play, and very soon your social life, hobbies and relationships with family and friends start to suffer. This is exactly what I started to do, and let me tell you, it’s no way to enjoy a good quality of life!
Instead, if you can, keep doing all the things you used to do, but maybe for a shorter time. So you can still go to that party and spend a wonderful time meeting friends, you just make a discreet exit when the volume of the chatting and the music starts to ramp up. Or, if you need to be there for the duration, you can manage your exposure to noise by taking some time out in a quieter room, the garden, the kitchen – or the bathroom if you’re really desperate! That’s the only way I’ve survived office parties and long social occasions such as weddings. You’ll be surprised how many other people you meet who are also escaping for a while to get some downtime from the noise.
Try sound therapy
Sound therapy is a great way of improving your ability to cope with certain sounds that really challenge you. Essentially you start with a short exposure to a sound and increase that gradually over a number of months (or years if you’re really struggling).
I know that sounds like a real pain. I get it, if there was a magic pill that would get rid of our tinnitus and/or sound sensitivity I would be fighting you at the head of the queue. But that’s not an option right now. So it’s worth putting the effort in.
Through sound therapy I’m able to cope much better with a real love of mine – watching track cycling at the velodrome (think big crowds, pumping music and lots of screaming at the person you want to win!). And I now can’t get enough of live gigs. In fact, I’m so comfortable with loud music I even go with my husband to watch bands like Iron Maiden!
If you have sound sensitivity and it’s making areas of your life challenging then I can help. Just drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can have a chat with someone who really gets what you’re going through, and is out the other side.