It took about six months. By early September 2020, after mandatory stay-at-home orders, pandemic-induced panic, and an embarrassing number of hours spent firmly planted on the same couch day after day, I started to hear everything. At first, it was the screams of our new neighbors’ young kids.
And while plenty of people might find piercing shrieks less than pleasing to the ear, I found them unbearable. Soon after, I was hyper-focused on another neighbor’s constantly barking dog.
And then came the bass. Had our downstairs neighbors always had subwoofers and an obsession with EDM?
When Sensitivity to Noise is Something More Serious
I’ve long suspected I suffer from something known as misophonia — a condition that causes people to be emotionally affected by common sounds (as I type this, I’m trying — and failing — to ignore the persistent and repetitive basketball bouncing in my neighbor’s driveway).
Misophonia affects approximately 10-15% of American adults, according to behavior scientist Thomas Dozier, president of the Misophonia Institute and author of “Understanding and Overcoming Misophonia.” Although there isn’t a ton of research about misophonia, experts believe it can seriously compromise a person’s mental health and functioning.
For instance, people with misophonia tend to get angry or feel a desire to escape from everyday sounds that others either don’t notice or aren’t bothered by. Example: My boyfriend literally slept through three hours of a moving crew pushing dollies down the stairs outside our bedroom, while I nearly lost my mind.
Can Misophonia Affect Your Sleep?
When it comes to whether and how misophonia affects sleep, the jury is still out.
“There is no research that I am aware of about misophonia and sleep,” Dozier says.
That said, if the triggering noises are happening at bedtime or creating enough anxiety during the day, there’s a chance they may disturb a misophonia sufferer’s sleep.
“It’s generally reported that when a person is triggered, they cannot go to sleep,” says Dozier. “Being triggered causes an autonomic response of the sympathetic nervous system (‘fight or flight’) and therefore would block a response of the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). The triggers must stop before a person can sleep.”
Dozier and his colleagues published a study last year in the journal Psychological Thought that found 83% of participants had breathing sound triggers that set off their misophonia symptoms. Things like gasping, wheezing, sniffing, and other loud mouth sounds, including — you guessed it — snoring.
So, if you happen to have a bed partner who transforms into a freight train after dark, you may very well find yourself struggling to get rest.
“Snoring is a common trigger, and so are these other noises that a spouse/partner would make when lying in bed or asleep,” Dozier says. “When triggered, the extreme response prevents sleep. I know one man with very mild misophonia who has snoring as a trigger. He wakes up angry when his wife snores.”
According to Dozier, other common misophonia triggers include everything from barking dogs and passing traffic to everyday neighborhood sounds coming in through the walls or floor. Reading his list was like peeking into my own misophonia diary — I’d been triggered and kept awake by every single one.
Noise and Sleep-Quality Issues
Misophonia sufferers aren’t the only ones who experience sleep disturbances due to noise, of course.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, even sounds that don’t wake you up can affect the time spent in certain sleep stages, and environmental noise like air and vehicle traffic has been shown to increase stage 1 sleep (our lightest stage of sleep during which we’re most easily awakened) and decrease slow-wave and REM sleep (two mentally and physically restorative stages of sleep).
Research has also found that nighttime noise can incite excess adrenaline and cortisol production (two major stress hormones) and cause elevated heart rate and blood pressure. So even if you’re a relatively chill, unperturbed person when it comes to dealing with noise, you may be unknowingly experiencing negative effects of nighttime sounds that disturb your sleep.
How to Reduce Sleep-Disrupting Noise
Whether you’re clearly coping with misophonia like I am, or you simply want to protect your precious sleep at all costs, here are some tried-and-true tips for avoiding noise at night.
Fill your living space with ambient sound: The soothing whir of some light background sounds may help distract you from outside noise and even cover up some upsetting sounds. “Add lots of background noise, such as fans, white noise, or soothing sounds like rain,” Dozier says. I’ve personally been loving this two-hour “Train in the Rain” episode of the Deep Sleep Sounds podcast.
Fit your ears with a physical barrier: “Wear comfortable earplugs,” Dozier suggests. “I recommend foam cylinder earplugs, such as 3M E-A-R Classic Earplugs. These should be fully inserted into the ear canal to give maximum benefit. When worn at night you may need another person to wake you or have a very loud alarm clock. A combination of both sound and earplugs can be even more helpful.”
Add soft surfaces to your bedroom: You’ve probably noticed that sounds tend to echo in empty spaces and reverberate off hard surfaces. Fix that issue by filling your bedroom with as many soft, plush, cozy fabrics and items as possible. Bring in more rugs, install thick curtains, and invest in lots of cushions.
See if you can address the issue: It’s not always possible to negotiate with the source of your sound issues (passing drivers and random dogs will likely not be interested in hearing your gripes). But if you can identify the culprit and you think you can calmly address the matter and express your needs for more quiet time, it may be worth a try. Have a talk with your snoring partner, request your roommate turn down the television, or kindly ask your neighbor if they might consider keeping their EDM playlists to a low volume after a certain hour. Your neighbors may not thank you, but your body will.
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