By Nando Pelusi Ph. D., published on April 11, 2008 - last reviewed on May 20, 2013
Certain repetitive noises make me so anxious that I have to get away from the source. Other times, that same noise doesn't bother me at all. The anxiety is almost like a panic attack. I can recall a childhood Christmas tree ornament that made a repetitive chirping noise like a bird. It made me so anxious that my mom took the batteries out. Is there such a thing as noise anxiety?
Noise is a stimulus, and when we have little control over the source, we often experience more stress and anxiety. Your anxiety may have several causes. First, you may have a "control" reaction, in which you are keenly aware of not being able to stop or alter a sound. Second, you may experience sound more sensitively than the average person.
A tree falling doesn't make us anxious if we don't hear it, so it's the perception of the noise and what we do with that reaction that counts. I remember the librarian telling me to "shush" when I was in school. I wondered what the fuss was about until I tried to read while others were talking. We won't go into the anxiety that comes from an animate source like a spouse.
Let's look at sound sensitivity first. Musicians are quite aware of sounds in general and, in fact, some have the ability to recognize relative pitch, and a few even have perfect pitch, or the ability to discern the key. For such people, a noise stimulus could become emotionally jarring and upsetting.
For those who notice sounds and get absorbed by them, that intrusion can become an interruption, and a distraction from a productive task, including relaxation or sleep.
My guess is that we experience both types of noise responses, sensitivity and lack of control. For example, reading on a loud subway might be OK because we accommodate the din, until an even louder sound like a horn is blared. Therefore, it is the difference in stimulus that prompts an anxious reaction.
If you're a highly sensitive person in general, noise can be a powerful trigger to getting upset, but you can work on getting yourself less upset about it.
If you're telling yourself that you can't stand the noise, or that you can't stand your reaction to the noise (assuming the decibel level is reasonable), you'll make yourself much more vulnerable to getting upset about the noise. If you tell yourself that you do not like the noise or your reaction to it, but that you definitely can stand it, you may come to see that the noise is only a distraction, and not drastically dismaying.
With practice and effort you can work on showing yourself that a noise need not make you anxious, but that it is just a hassle. However, if it prevents you from sleeping, working, or studying, then it is a stimulus that you will have to avoid by changing your circumstances.
Controlling our environment is a task humans are very good at, but in a modern world where noises are a part of the landscape, our control is limited. Some cities are considered health hazards because of their high decibel levels. How do many city dwellers deal with that? They buy earplugs or iPods.