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When sound sensitivity is more than just a pet peeve


For those easily troubled by particular sounds, 
misophonia or hyperacusis might be the underlying issue. 
Learn more about these conditions and discover strategies for coping with noise sensitivity.
Issue 4 | March 2024

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In the critically acclaimed 2022 film Tár, Cate Blanchett portrays a fictional orchestra conductor grappling with acute sensitivity to specific sounds. From the mundane click of pens and the echo of door knocks to the relentless ticking of a metronome, everyday noises—perceived as ordinary by most—would haunt her character, driving her into deep rage and distraction.

This form of sound sensitivity, while rare, manifests a spectrum ranging from mild irritation to violent outbursts in response to certain noises. For those afflicted, this condition can be debilitating, triggering stress and anxiety, extending beyond mere discomfort to cause insomnia and a significant decline in quality of life.

A world too loud for some 

Estimated to affect one in five individuals, misophonia, a condition suffered by Blanchett’s character, renders ubiquitous sounds—often unnoticed by others—into triggers of profound emotional disturbance. Take the crunching of popcorn by fellow cinemagoers, the cracking of knuckles, or even the faintest of breathing noises. For those with misophonia, these seemingly innocuous sounds can unleash extreme emotional and behavioural reactions such as screaming, throwing objects and physically lashing out, accompanied by physiological changes such as increased heart rate, breathing and sweating.

“If an everyday sound such as breathing, chewing, tapping or sniffing provoke an intensively adverse reaction for you, you might have misophonia,” says Dr Jenny Loo, Senior Principal Audiologist in the Department of Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery, NUH. “This condition intensifies connections within the amygdala, the brain’s emotional centre, triggering a fight-or-flight response and resulting in emotionally charged reactions.” 

Another auditory condition, known as hyperacusis, affects loudness perception in approximately 10% of the general adult population. Those affected find themselves inordinately sensitive to everyday sounds and find them painfully loud and often unbearable. 

“Imagine the world’s volume knob cranked up excessively—sometimes to a painful degree,” explains Dr Loo. “While the average person can tolerate sounds levels at least 85 dBHL across various frequencies, those with hyperacusis experience a greatly reduced tolerance, making routine noises, such as the pitter-patter of raindrops, the ambient chatter of a busy café or the whirring and buzzing of kitchen appliances, sources of discomfort for them.” 

Let’s (not) get loud

To manage noise sensitivity effectively, desensitisation is key, rather than avoidance. Earplugs, while offering immediate relief, can increase sensitivity in the long run.

“It’s better to gradually acclimate to sounds, starting at comfortable levels and then slowly increasing the volume,” adds Dr Loo, underscoring that this process should be individualised, particularly for varying sound pitches. 

Dr Loo further explains that our brain’s malleable nature enables it to adapt to environmental sounds as part of the desensitisation process. “Excessive use of earplugs,” she notes, “conditions the brain to fixate on quieter sounds, which can create an unrealistic expectation for constant peace and quiet, which isn’t always practical in daily life.” 

In public settings, choosing quieter areas and stepping away from sources of loud noise can help. At night, background music or white noise machines can mask disturbing sounds, promoting relaxation and sleep. For specific disturbances like snoring, separate sleeping arrangements or earplugs might be necessary.

“If noise sensitivity severely impacts your physiological well-being and disrupts your daily life, it is important to seek advice from healthcare professionals who can offer bespoke strategies that can be woven into your everyday life,” advises Dr Loo.

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