Coping with Noise
Coping Strategies for Noise-related Stress
For several years, I’ve been involved in a programme of research studies using Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and stress management to help individuals with noise-related stress, sometimes called “noise annoyance” or “noise phobia”. The research concluded that the majority of our participants learned to cope better with stress and problems sleeping linked to a variety of “noises”. It began with a pilot study using group therapy sessions, which was followed by a number of groups of “students” put through an online CBT self-help course, based on a manual I designed for coping with noise.
The problems reported by people with noise-related stress do vary somewhat but they also have many things in common with each other. Some of the information below may therefore be relevant to you while other things are not, or may describe people with more severe, complex or generalised problems. Whether your own problem is simple or complex, mild or severe, specific or generalised, it may still fall under the same broad heading of “noise-related stress”. The good news is that noise-related stress has been found to respond well to quite simple psychological therapy techniques.
Coping with Noise Project Website
Daily Mail Article
Types of Problematic Noise
Here are some typical examples of the kind of “noises” that people have problems with:
- Noise from neighbours such as voices or music, etc.
- Noise from neighbours caused by the impact of footsteps, furniture moving, doors closing, etc.
- Noise from machinery or plumbing
- Noise from power stations or electrical equipment
- Traffic noise from outside
- Unidentified noise in the environment, such as low-frequency humming
This isn’t a complete list, though, there are many other situations where “noise” is perceived as problematic. Some people are just bothered by one type of noise, whereas other people are bothered by many types of noise, or even all types of noise.
Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between certain environmental noises, such as buzzing or humming, and tinnitus, which is a sound originating within the body. Tinnitus has actually been treated successfully, in several studies, using CBT techniques. The two main symptoms of noise-related stress are emotional distress (irritation, anxiety, depression) and difficulty sleeping. However, the problem may also have a wider impact on your quality of life, by affecting your lifestyle, relationships, work, studies, or leisure time, etc.
Normalising the Problem
One of the first things to consider is the use of the word “noise” and the difference between a “noise” and a “sound.” What one person calls a mere “sound”, another person may think of as an unbearable “noise”, a word that implies that it is inherently distressing.
Consider the following questions,
- Are other people exposed to the same environment as you without hearing the sound, or do people around you hear the sound without being bothered by it? Do you live with someone who doesn’t suffer from noise-related stress? Why are others not affected in the same way as you?
- Do you hear sounds in other environments without being disturbed by them? What about noisy coffee shops or bars, or walking down a street with a lot of traffic noise? Does the noise of rain falling bother you? Why are you bothered by some sounds but not others?
- Has there ever been a time in the past when you weren’t bothered by the sound? Why did it begin to distress you?
- Does your mood make any difference to how you respond? If you won the lottery, would you still be bothered by the sound? Why does your mood affect the way you respond?
When people become disturbed by a sound over a long period of time, they tend to become more sensitive to it, and “listen out” for it, paying attention to it for longer. Of course, that makes it even more disturbing. People often report that when they are irritable, anxious or depressed, they pay more attention to the sound, or notice it more at night when their house is quiet. This can take the form of worry or preoccupation with the sound.
The Problem of Habituation
When people are exposed to ongoing stress resulting from the same stimulus, there’s a natural tendency for them to get used to it and for the distress it causes to “wear off” over time. The technical term for this process is “habituation”. Habituation is a very basic adaptive process that appears to occur automatically throughout all animal species. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, it’s been observed that people who live or work in noisy environments, such as primitive villages beside waterfalls or ancient blacksmiths’ forges, tend to learn over time to ignore the sound. In modern times, it’s often observed that people who work in noisy industrial settings, such as factories, also get used to the noise around them. People appear to learn how to speak “over” the noise around them even though visitors unused to the sound may be unable to make out any of their conversation, suggesting that their hearing can become selective.
The real problem of noise-related stress is that for some reason habituation has not had a chance to happen spontaneously. That’s normally because something is blocking or interfering with the natural process of “getting-used to things”. In fact, many of the attempts that people make to cope with stress or problems sleeping can backfire and maintain sensitivity to noise in this way. Hence, one of the first tasks of therapy is to identify all the relevant coping strategies employed in response to the “noise” and pose the question: “How are these working out for you?” Are they causing the problem to improve over time, or is it getting worse? Also, do your attempts to cope come at a cost? Do they interfere with your quality of life in other ways? What causes you most suffering, the noise or your struggle with it?
Unhelpful Coping Strategies
Psychological research on coping with stress shows that different people benefit from different coping strategies at different times, in different circumstances, in response to different situations. It’s therefore impossible to make generalisations, and better to evaluate individual ways of coping to decide for yourself whether they are helping or making things worse. A general rule of thumb is that attempts to solve problems at a practical level appear to be most helpful, except, as is typically the case with prolonged noise-related stress, when no practical solution to the external problem can be identified. Where repeated failed attempts at problem-solving occur, continuing the struggle to control or eliminate your distress can seriously backfire and increase preoccupation with the noise and sensitivity to it. In cases where a practical solution cannot be found, the main alternative is to learn to radically accept the external situation and your automatic reactions to it. As the famous Serenity Prayer puts it, “Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Some examples of coping strategies that can backfire by interfering with habituation, include,
- Worry, in the sense of “extended thinking” about the sound, e.g., “What if?” thinking that involves hypothetical feared catastrophes
- Rumination, another form of extended thinking, that involves dwelling on “Why?” questions and analysing past events, etc.
- Safety-seeking and frustrated attempts at problem-solving, i.e., trying and failing to find a solution to the sound
- Trying to “mask” the sound by playing music, wearing earplugs, etc.
- Trying to avoid thinking about the sound by forcefully distracting yourself or “positive thinking”
- Trying to suppress your feelings about the sound or “trying to relax” when already distressed
- Complaining or seeking reassurance excessively from other people
- Misusing “sleeping pills” or anti-anxiety drugs to cope with the sound
- Misusing alcohol or illegal drugs to cope with the sound
- Trying to avoid the sound by sleeping in a different room, etc.
Although it can occassionally be helpful do use some of these coping strategies, such as positive thinking, problem-solving, or relaxation, when used excessively or inappropriately they can become unhelpful and potentially make the problem worse. There are several reasons for this, such as the fact that using any method as a way to avoid thinking about something (“cognitive avoidance”) tends to send a message to your brain that the thing being avoided is a threat. So long as you assume something is a “problem” or a “threat”, your brain will automatically pay more attention to it in the future. Likewise, trying not to think about something tends to achieve the opposite because doing so requires thinking about what you’re supposed not to be thinking about. Try not to think of a pink elephant – trying to do this can make you think about it even more. This is called the “paradox of thought suppression”, and may be more pronounced in people who are more anxious or distressed.
Systematic Applied Relaxation
Our research found that special applied relaxation techniques were popular with participants and seemed to be effective both in reducing stress and in promoting sleep. However, a specific method called “progressive muscle-relaxation” or “tension-release” may be preferable to other types of relaxation. Care has to be taken to prevent relaxation from becoming an unhelpful form of avoidance, and therapeutic relaxation must normally be combined with deliberate exposure to the feared situation, i.e., the sound, to be effective. To prevent attempts at relaxation from backfiring, in general, it may be important to learn relaxation skills more systematically and to use relaxation before distress has escalated, to relax while you hear the sound, and to abandon other strategies that may be counter-productive such as attempts to avoid or mask the sound. Learning to let go of tension in the right way can be made easier by using the applied relaxation CDs we designed.
Cognitive therapy techniques are a bit more complex and hard to explain in a paragraph. However, they usually involve self-monitoring your thinking very closely to identify specific thoughts and underlying beliefs and assumptions, of a more general kind, which might be contributing to the problem. For example, beliefs about the amount of danger the sound represents and your inability to cope with it, themes of “threat and vulnerability”, may contribute to stress reactions or problems sleeping. Likewise, anger toward people blamed for causing the problem can sometimes be based on unfounded assumptions about the nature of the sound and the intentions of the people blamed for causing it. Cognitive therapy traditionally involves challenging the evidence for your thoughts and beliefs. However, more recently, research has shown that changing your relationship with your thoughts, by viewing them in a more detached way can achieve similar results in a simpler manner. Another common strategy involves postponing (as opposed to suppressing) worry or rumination about the problem, which tends to reduce the amount of time spent preoccupied with the noise.
Many, perhaps most, of the people who complain about noise-related stress also tend to report problems sleeping. These may be problems falling asleep, staying asleep, waking too early in the morning, or generally having a poor quality of sleep. Clinical trials of cognitive-behavioural approaches to treating sleep problems typically report very high success rates. The most basic approach to overcoming sleep problems is called “sleep hygiene” and involves identifying common behaviours that tend to make problems sleeping worse, and stopping them. Sleep restriction, relaxation techniques, and cognitive therapy are also important ways of treating problems sleeping.
Sometimes people have genuine practical problems that can be solved and deserve to be tackled properly. There are well-established methods for problem-solving, which can be used to help you systematically identify solutions and put them into practice. Problems may be environmental, such as identifying the source of the sound and removing it, or interpersonal, such as being assertive or coping with conflict in relation to other people. Facing problems systematically can help you feel more confident and less distressed, as well as leading to changes in your environment. However, very often, people who suffer from noise-related stress tend to be confronted with “unsolvable problems” where practical problem-solving styles of thinking have been over-used and turned into unhelpful worry or rumination. In many cases, therefore, problem-solving needs to be replaced with an attitude of accepting unpleasant experiences and letting go of the struggle with them, in order to allow natural habituation to occur over time.