Embodied Heart

When Even Silence Buzzes

I’m not a music lover. The pulsating rhythm of most concerts leaves my ears feeling like they are bleeding, not an experience I desire or seek. In general, I hate sound much more than I find it pleasurable or interesting. I remind myself frequently that I should be grateful for the fact that I can hear unaided, and should find joy in the beautiful noises in my life such as birds chirping or squirrels chattering. But more moments than not, “be quiet” is on my mind. In today’s #EmbodiedHeart post, I will be exploring my experience with sound in the context of struggling with PTSD.

I do not recall a time where I used my ability to hear in a way that enhanced my life. I grew up with many siblings in an old house with poor insulation. Every noise made by a family member echoed and reverberated through the wooden structure. After puberty, a sudden shift took hold, mainly around the dinner table and while driving in a crowded van. The sounds of others eating or my siblings inventing little melodies absolutely enraged me. Researchers still puzzle about the scientific validity, but having lived for decades with it, I am convinced misophonia, which is the hatred of certain sounds such as “mouth noises,” is a real condition. Noise that cannot be blocked because it causes physical vibrations as well as sound waves (such as bass music) sends me into a full-blown hysteria every time.

Difficulties with sound processing have been linked to conditions such as PTSD. In addition to misophonia, some individuals suffer from hyperacusis, which means they experience certain noises to be louder than they actually are. Phonophobia involves anxiety in reaction to loud noises and may be related to misophonia. A central feature of most of these problems is that certain sounds become connected to negative emotional events; the noise itself can then provoke the emotion.

When I am finally in an extremely quiet environment, the buzzing starts. I have tinnitus in both ears. It is as if my brain is never satisfied with quiet, and the expectation of disrupted peace evokes the appearance of it. I did have an ill-fated attempt several years ago at wearing earplugs overnight after showering, resulting in severe outer ear infections, so I did myself no favors there.

As I write this, I realize how little effort I’ve put into seeking professional assistance in combating my hearing problems. When I have gone to audiologists, they’ve offered no help beyond testing my hearing; they have generally disregarded my experience of difficulties with sound processing. After my latest visit, I was diagnosed with abnormal auditory perception, which means, in addition to my intense reactions to normal sounds, my brain also has difficulty putting together the sounds it is receiving. This explains the problems I have at times understanding others when they are speaking to me, and why I frequently ask them to repeat what they’ve said.

I’ve spent many hours online alternating between researching cabins on 10 acres in the woods and camper RVs so that I can escape at a moment’s notice. I know that neither of these possibilities offers any guarantee of silence. As I sit with my experience, I find it odd that silence represents something different from “peace” and “relaxation” to me, instead, it signifies the absence of suffering. I equate being able to hear other humans and the noises they generate with suffering and with pain. Certainly anyone who’s been trapped in at a child’s birthday party for too long can attest to the realness of desiring some time without shrieks to think, but my experience is such that I spend a good part of my time every day dreading potential sounds as well as clinging by a thread to my sanity when the music gets going or the gum chewing begins. This awareness is leading me to see that I need to more fully pursue interventions to reduce my suffering that allow me to live in greater, rather than less, peace with noise.

Goddess spirituality and Pagan practice are filled with sounds. Dancing, chanting, drumming and the like send up bursts of energy to Goddess in worship and adoration. I vacillate in my ability to access the well of spiritual blessings these noises contain depending upon my emotional state and general level of hyper-vigilance. Given the power and potency of sounds to ward off and call in and name and release, I now desire to have a greater ability to both disregard noises that are irrelevant to my experience and to tune in to and celebrate those that enrich my life. In doing so, I hope to learn from others about what has worked and not worked for them. What is your experience with sound? How does it affect you both positively and negatively? If there are noises that you dislike, what have you found helps you to ignore them? What allows you to enjoy the sounds you prefer?

2 thoughts on “When Even Silence Buzzes”

  1. I too am very sensitive to sound, but not to the same extent as you, and I don’t experience any physiological conditions such as tinnitus. Several years ago I started to wear headphones quite a lot, using music as a way of blocking out conversation – mainly on public transport – where the topic was inane or offensive, or where I didn’t like the speaker’s voice or accent (yes – I know how terrible that sounds but I struggle with it). I then found that there seemed to be some sensory interference in that I found it impossible to perform some tasks whilst listening to music, e.g. reading the labels on food packaging. This was especially difficult if the music was included lyrics rather than being instrumental only. I cannot have songs or the radio playing in a room where I am working – even if it is very quiet, but I can have purely instrumental tracks on; I find I am distracted by words and conversation. Until recently I enjoyed living in a very quiet little street of just a few houses, the majority occupied by middle-aged or older single people and couples. The few young children in our street are too young to play outside and they are not those kind of families anyway. About six months ago a man moved in who has a young grandson staying with him for much of the week. The child has a number of friends who visit. From the moment he gets out of his granddad’s car this little boy seems to release an unbound level of noise energy, and he plays outside nearly all of the time, calling out to his granddad from the street rather than going into the house to speak with him. There is absolutely nothing untoward or abnormal about this child or his conduct, and he is not misbehaving – but his presence and that of his friends had totally transformed our neighbourhood and quality of life. I sometimes feel like I have to live by way of a time-share arrangement, identifying the times in the week when the kid is not yet up. These are now the times when I can enjoy sitting in my garden. It is incredible how the presence of one noise source can have an impact on another’s life. In my own case, I have to be fair and admit that the problem is mine, not the other person’s. The level of noise is not unacceptable, it is just new and unusual in this location – and I am unusually sensitive. It is hard, and I understand where you come from.

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    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your own experiences with this issue! I’ve had times where I use headphones; the difficulty with the sound sensitivity issues I have at least is that regular sounds then get louder once I turn them off. Air purifiers and fans that create white noise are my trusted companions!
      I feel for you in your situation; it’s very hard when the noise is not abnormal in any way but yet still disrupts our ability to concentrate. I deal with this in regards to my internal distress at the noises like people chewing and clearing their throats. I will write an update if I am able to find any interventions or treatments that are helpful.

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