Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of a blog post written by Karen Wang for Friendship Circle. Her full post can be read here.
When my son was a toddler, he had a panic attack every time our washing machine clicked loudly to change cycles. He developed a phobia of all types of bells. He covered his ears and cried in crowds. But he became calm, even joyful, every single time we went for a walk in the woods, visited the library or entered any kind of religious environment: his stiff, tight muscles would relax instantly in my arms.
Creating a Plan to Deal With Sounds
All of these observations gave me food for thought as I developed a plan to help him cope with his sensitivity to sound. Over the years his ability to tolerate noise has steadily increased, and barking dogs are his only remaining noise-related phobia.
Here are eleven ways to help a highly sensitive person learn how to cope with and enjoy everyday noisy situations.
1. Know the types of sensitivity
There are several different types of noise sensitivity, and there are different treatments for each type. Consult with an audiologist to pinpoint which type of sensitivity is affecting your quality of life. There are five common types of sensitivities, but keep in mind that a person may be affected by more than one issue. For example, my son has hyperacusis in addition to phobias of specific sounds.
2. Provide relief
Headphones and earplugs offer instant comfort and relief. Noise-canceling headphones are the most effective, because they replace irritating environmental noise by producing calming white noise. However, most audiologists, physicians, therapists and educators recommend against frequent use of headphones and earplugs, because a person can quickly become dependent on them.
3. Identify safe environments
One of the first steps that I took for my son was to make a list of his “safe” places and increase his participation there.
4. Allow control over some types of noise
At its heart, anxiety is a fear of being unable to control reactions and situations. When my son had a phobia of bells, I gave him several different types of bells to handle and experiment with at home. When we saw bells at customer service desks or in other public places, I allowed him to ring the bell. He gradually became comfortable with the sounds, and he even began identifying speaker systems, alarm systems and other sources of sounds everywhere we went.
5. Allow distractions
When my husband and I took a Lamaze childbirth class many years ago, we learned about the power of distraction in pain management. By giving a person something like an iPad to focus on or an unusual privilege such as bringing along a favorite toy from home, it becomes possible to direct attention away from the offending noise.
6. Gradually increase exposure and proximity
The cure for a fear of snakes does not involve throwing a person into a snake pit. Similarly, relief from noise sensitivity requires a gradual desensitization and not a sudden exposure. Start by observing something from afar and take a step closer with each opportunity.
7. Alternate noisy and quiet
I discovered that my son’s tolerance for noise increased the most when I scheduled frequent quiet breaks. After a morning out doing errands, we enjoyed a quiet lunch at home. After a playgroup with 7 other children, we made time to snuggle on the sofa. When we felt brave enough to visit a large theme park, we booked a hotel inside the park so that we could retreat as often as necessary. We always take a break before the noise upsets him, so that he will want to return for more fun after resting.
8. Hyperacusis Retraining Therapy (Tinnitus Retraining Therapy)
Auditory Integration Therapy (AIT) is sometimes suggested to people with noise sensitivity, but there is very little peer-reviewed research published on the topic of AIT, and the existing research has generally not been favorable. However, there is plenty of medical research on Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT), which involves listening to broadband pink noise to habituate a person to ringing in the ears. Pink noise contains all audible frequencies, but with more power in the lower frequencies than in the higher frequencies. Most people report that pink noise sounds “flat.” Because of this, it helps to rebuild tolerance to sound.
9. Cognitive-behavioral therapy
Physicians widely recommend cognitive-behavioral therapy for phobias and anxiety because it teaches a person to self-manage emotions and coping skills. The goal of the therapy is to reframe a person’s thought processes about the cause for anxiety in order to increase quality of life.
Many people with tinnitus or hyperacusis are deficient in magnesium or other minerals. Consult with a physician to determine if nutritional supplements may be able to help.
11. Avoid food additives
Certain food additives, especially those in the salicylate family, are associated with noise sensitivity. In fact, medical literature refers to salicylate as a “tinnitus inducer.” Special diets, such as the Feingold Diet or a diverse whole foods diet, eliminate those additives and may help reduce sensitivity. Consult with a physician or dietitian before making any major dietary changes.
Karen Wang is a regular blogger for Friendship Circle, a nonprofit organization that supports people with special needs and their families. Karen is also a contributing author to the anthology “My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities”