A person with auditory sensitivity has extreme reactions to certain types of noises due to differences in their brain. Other names for this condition include auditory overload, sensory auditory overload, sensory processing disorder, and hyperacusis.
Each person with auditory sensitivity is unique and reacts in different ways to different types of sounds. For example, some may cover their ears and be unable to concentrate due to loud noises while others will feel physical pain from high pitched sounds. People with this disorder often have difficulty filtering out background noise to pick up only the sounds they need to hear. Trying to track competing sounds can be frustrating to the point of avoiding going out in public or socializing.
Common Causes of Auditory Sensitivity
This condition can occur for a variety of reasons, including the following:
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Brain injury
- Side effect of medication
- Structural problem with the ear present at birth
Sometimes doctors cannot determine the reason a person develops auditory sensitivity. In these situations, the best guess is that the brain just doesn’t process sounds as it should. The amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for taking in and filtering sounds, works differently than it does in people without this disorder.
Normally, the amygdala knows which sounds to pay attention to versus which sounds it’s safe to ignore. The prevailing medical opinion is that the amygdala of people with auditory sensitivity pays more attention to sound than necessary.
More About the Amygdala
The amygdala, a group of neurons that sits in the center of the brain, is approximately the size of a pea. The job of the amygdala is to receive sensory input and send electronic signals to the rest of the body. In addition to delivering sensory input to the correct area of the brain for processing, the amygdala is instrumental in keeping the rest of the body safe.
One important way that the amygdala performs this safety function is to automatically trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response based on outside stimuli. The automatic response acts as a protective mechanism when the amygdala works as it should. Jumping or feeling startled in response to an unexpected sound is just one example of the protective reflex in action. For people with auditory sensitivity, the response can become hyperactive and bothersome rather than offering true protection.
Hypersensitivity to sound means that the fight, flight, or freeze response happens immediately rather than the amygdala sending this message to other areas of the brain for processing. The same response can occur when a person feels anxious, which can in turn cause an even more exaggerated response. Here are some common symptoms experienced by children or adults with auditory sensitivity:
- Heightened startle reflex, particularly to sounds like fireworks and police sirens
- Covering the ears when a loud and unexpected sound occurs
- Picking up on sounds that others don’t hear
- Easily distracted by background noises such as traffic, the sounds made by a refrigerator or air conditioner, or background music
- Dislike of high pitched sounds like those made by a vacuum cleaner
- Difficulty attending events like concerts or church services due to the increased sensory experience
- Sensitivity with other senses
- Feelings of restlessness
- Repeating a task multiple times
The experience of auditory overload can be physically painful as well as produce anxiety. While it’s often lifelong, sufferers can take several steps to decrease symptom severity.
Tips for Reducing Auditory Sensitivity
Surgical repair of a faulty amygdala isn’t possible due to its location directly in the center of the brain. The best that people with this condition can do is reduce their exposure to triggering situations. Some helpful strategies could include:
- Wear earplugs in loud environments
- Rest as much as possible before attending a large social gathering to help the auditory system function its best
- Avoid drinking too much alcohol
- If background music makes it difficult to hear conversation, ask the host to turn it down or off
Noise cancelling headphones or earbuds are also good options for dealing with this disorder. For example, Nuheara is an emerging leader in wearable technology that addresses a spectrum of hearing issues through their IQbuds earbuds. These earbuds are designed to make the world more comfortable for people with auditory sensitivity. Users can personalize noise control features to provide relief for sensory overload. Additionally, they sync with a smartphone app to reduce background noise to make it easier to concentrate on speech and control the direction of sound.
In a world that often feels too loud and overwhelming, following the tips above and seeking out innovative new technologies may help to bring the sound down to a manageable level.