When sounds are just too much to handle, a point of view from an auditory sensitive sensory OT
Have you ever experienced a sound that just makes your spine shiver? Something like nails on a chalk board possibly. That feeling you get when hearing a sound like that is a response to something your ears don’t like. I have something called auditory sensitivity (hyperacusis) where my body is very responsive to certain sounds. As a pediatric OT, I experience a lot of different sounds throughout my day. I’m talking very loud and very intense whistles in addition to sounds that kids make with their mouths because they either are trying to cover up a sound they don’t like or really like the sounds that is coming out of their mouth. My biggest trigger is hearing others chew or make specific noises with their mouth when talking.
When I was younger, I would get angry whenever my dad was close to me when he was eating. This prompted my parents to “assign” seats at the dinner table and mine was located on the very opposite end of the table from my dad because, to this day, I can’t sit next to him when eating. I will say, I rarely get that intense anger feeling any more but when I do, it all depends on what my state of regulation is. If I’m more moody, anxious, or upset about something then the sensitivity to sound is amplified. If I’m calm and regulated, the sounds don’t bother me quite as much.
What I have learned over my years as an occupational therapist that specializes in sensory integration is how to cope when sounds become overwhelming to me and what to do to make myself feel better. Aside from chewing, there are other sounds that make my body feel tense and anger flair up, and this is typical when someone is hyper-sensitive. I used to cover my ears, get mad, yell, and lash out. So, what do I do now? I take 10 deep breaths, try and remove myself or the source of the sound (which is not always possible to do), or I try something called ear tapping.
Ear tapping is something one of my fellow OTs taught me and I use it every so often, more so when a sound is starting to bother me and I can’t remove myself from it. It is a way to provide a manual vibration to the inner ear to stimulate it. That stimulation helps to decrease the hyper sensitivity over time. How exactly does this work? Think about this scenario: you move into a new house and there are train tracks near it and you hear the train every day. After a week or so, you don’t notice the train as often, and after a month, they just become another background noise. Essentially, overtime the stimulation helps to decrease the sensitivity. Now, I’m not saying to go chew in someone’s ear until they tolerate it, but providing the vibration to the ear can provide that stimulus to decrease the sensitivity.
Now, ear tapping isn’t a cure. Unfortunately, there isn’t much research on hyperacusis. So, as I said before, ear tapping does help reduce being sensitive over time or in the moment but it isn’t a permanent fix. What does help with sound sensitivity is improving coping skills and the ability to remain regulated. Some instances, I use a sound machine with noises that are calming for me or even wear head phones (I use Bose sound sport wireless headphones) to help eliminate some sounds but aren’t completely noise cancelling. Noises are a part of everyday life and learning to adjust and handle the intensity so it doesn’t disrupt our lives will take time. If you would like information on the ear tapping protocol, please fill out our contact form with your request. We'd be happy to send it to you!
Other head phone recommendations:
· Earasers earplugs, at the highest 31 dB SPL reduction filter (they also have an even higher filter at -36 dB SPL) - www.earasers.net/
· Etyomic earplugs which are cheaper (musician earplugs, about $13 on amazon), they are a bit uncomfortable, but have similar filtering properties as the ones listed above.
· MPow makes over the ear headphones that are noise reducing and are bluetooth
If you have any questions or comments, please reach out because we want to hear from you! In the meantime, go forth and flourish!
**This advice should not replace seeking professional medical and therapeutic advice. As that is always recommended in response to any pain or discomfort.**