How can I be less sensitive to my surrounding environment?
July 11, 2011 7:26 PM   Subscribe

How can I be less sensitive to my surrounding environment?

Recently I’ve noticed that I’m overly sensitive to my surrounding environment, and it negatively impacts my life. I don’ think I have always been this way and it has been getting worse. I know sometimes I have not appropriate responses to normal everyday things. Here are some examples:

Home – I am extremely noise sensitive to sounds. I’ve lived large metro areas for more than 10 years and I think I am getting worse, instead of adjusting. I recently moved because I was annoyed at being woken up by sounds of buses and motorcycles and hearing traffic noise all of the time. I like my current location better since I specially chose this location to be on the top floor to minimize neighbor noise; but sometimes I get irrationally annoyed by a kid that lives two doors down. Sometimes it yells or cries or runs down the hall yelling, and I feel very annoyed because I am usually reading or relaxing and it’s irritating. I know it is just being a kid and probably normal behavior.

Work – I find it difficult to concentrate for extended periods if there is no natural light. Also I have trouble working in areas with a lot of ‘traffic’ nearby which is a challenge because I need to be flexible with work locations. I also am extremely sensitive to air quality if that makes sense. Sometimes in air conditioned rooms, it seems like the air is stale. To me, it is distracting and gives me the sensation like I am catching a cold.

With Significant Other – This is a minor issue, but my SO is messier than I am. I am not an extremely clean person and we don’t live together, but sometimes I am a little turned off at their apartment. I realize they are making do in a very small space, but for some reason being surrounded by trash bags full of clutter and unused clothes impacts my mood tiny bit. Also when I see food wrappers by the bed, then when I feel little things in the sheets, it is gross. But I don’t know what to say or if I should say anything? This is really not a big deal in our relationship, I just wish I did not notice these things, if that makes sense.

Sorry for the novel, but I wanted give specific examples. What I am asking for is ways or techniques to help become less sensitive or annoyed by these things. I have not had therapy, but someone mentioned that maybe these are some types of control issues? That might be true since I am very laid back in my relationships by more stressed about things internally. Thanks in advance for your thoughts!
posted by seesom to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Dunno, you don't sound all that hypersensitive to me. I think it's pretty normal to be irritated by clutter & especially food wrappers in/around a bed. As for the noise thing, have you tried Howard Leight brand "Max Lite" uncorded foam earplugs? I use them and they're the bomb-diggity. I guess generally I'm not one to think people have some kind of disorder unless they're not able to function, or if they're putting themselves or others in danger. Maybe you would benefit from seeing a counselor - I certainly don't want to discourage you. But you sound totally within the normal range to me. Is there an upside to this sensitivity? I tend to see it as a positive.
posted by facetious at 7:31 PM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Those things sound kind of normal to me also, but on the off chance those three examples aren't very indicative... the first thing I thought about when I read your title was about Sensory defensiveness. When I learned about that, it helped me a lot just to at least know it was an actual thing. There's also a book that talks about some techniques you can do to relieve the stress, thought it suggests therapy to help with the techniques. Also, exercise helps.

So not sure if that's what's going on with you, but maybe it's helpful.
posted by lurking_girl at 7:38 PM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

(Looks like I snagged the short straw) Have you had your thyroid checked/a medical work-up done? Hypersensitivity to noise, light, and so on are hallmarks of hypothyroidism, and you write that these are new symptoms.
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:02 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I get hypersensitive to the exact same sorts of things when in a little bit of denial about being frustrated/anxious/insecure.
posted by desuetude at 9:42 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

For your home life, put on a fan or some kind of white noise thing, and never turn it off.
posted by bendy at 10:35 PM on July 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I empathize with you - in fact, I feel like you're describing myself. I wish I had some golden tips to share but I'm young and still trying to adjust to the sensory overload of modern living myself.

All I can put forth is that if you're anything like me, it's probably related to an underlying anxiety issue. For this reason I find myself turning off my cellphone or leaving it at home because the idea of constant contact freaks me out. When my roommate has unexpected and unfamiliar guests I tend to shut myself in my room. I know it comes off as rude but often times social or sensory stimulation is way too much for me to handle spontaneously. Unfortunately most people don't really understand (through no fault of their own) and might label me as moody or worse, a creep.

Some people are more naturally introverted. I mean this in the Jungian sense. It doesn't mean we don't have the capability to be charismatic or sociable. It means that while extroverts are energized by social interaction, the same interactions drains introverts who are recharged by the alone time that extroverts find draining.

I tried therapy and unfortunately my experience wasn't good. Don't let that discourage you because it might be your best bet. But if you're looking for ways to help yourself without throwing money at the problem, please consider meditation.

When I was a kid I always had a perception of meditation as some new-age hippy crap. In my distress I was driven to reevaluate my boneheaded presumptions and I discovered that mindfulness isn't a joke; it's healing. When you wake up in the morning, you clear your head of the anxieties we all anticipate before they actually happen. You focus on breathing, on existing in the present instead of projecting your fears of uncertainty. That feeling: that we're here now, and no one can take that away from you no matter how badly things deteriorate.

It might just be empowering enough to brush aside the worries that so commonly eat away our lives.
posted by WhitenoisE at 11:07 PM on July 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

Hey, I am like this and it sucks. I just realized that I probably need to move to the suburbs or a small town because I cannot deal with living in a city. Anyway, here are some tips:

1. Earplugs. All the time. I wear earplugs from when I leave my house in the morning until I get to work (when I put on headphones to listen to tunes) and repeat, but in reverse, in the evening.
2. Therapy. Because there's a lot of underlying anxiety that does make this sensitivity worse.
3. Engaging with others. This is best at places where I can't completely zone out, like the grocery store. If I'm talking with someone, it's much easier to ignore the noise/light/ahhhhness of it all.
4. Having escape routes, and not being afraid to use them. I'll do what I need to, to get out of a situation that's pushing me too far. It means I've left movies and parties and things twenty minutes in. I've had to go for two hour long walks to wait for the noise in my apartment to die down. It's not great, but being able to exert some control over things does help.
5. Fan + white noise machine in your apartment.
6. Angryface. When I have to be outside, I refuse to engage with people. Headphones on, sunglasses on, "you just insulted my mom" expression.
7. Self-soothing. For me, it's tapping my fingers together; for some reason, concentrating on this makes me take a deep breath and chill.
8. Breaks. I head to the suburbs every other weekend to see my parents and stay in a quiet place. I drive around sometimes just for the silence. I meditate. I think the effort of dealing with all the overwhelming things has a cumulative effect, and I need to restart myself or risk freaking out over some minor thing.

I was like this as a kid, so these are actually my parents' techniques for dealing with me then. They were pretty awesome in not treating my behavior as acting out; they recognized that I was just easily overwhelmed. Remind yourself that feeling this way doesn't make you a bad person.
posted by punchtothehead at 5:40 AM on July 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

If this is a recent thing, how stressed have you been lately? I get crabby and irritable like this when I'm stressed; little irritants like noises seem like a bigger deal than they are.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 8:57 AM on July 12, 2011

i have severe probs with neuro-based sensory sensitivities myself, and i would recommend something like this as well as earplugs. i've tried cheap and more expensive earplugs, and they all seem to fall apart with frequent use, so i stick with cheap ones.

when everything sounds like nails on a chalkboard to me, i'll put on earplugs underneath the hearing protection, and it doesn't block out everything, but it turns the volume down considerably.

it seems to cut down on certain frequencies much more than others. (for instance, i can have a conversation while wearing the hearing protection--all those tv shows that have conversations in shooting ranges aren't being inaccurate after all!)

looks weird, hot in summer, but you do what you have to.
posted by JBD at 12:23 PM on July 12, 2011

Do you have any anxiety about these things? Anxiety manifested for me as a sort of defensive hypersensitivity in regards to noises, smells, heat/cold, and the proximity of things to me. It wasn't until I began mindfulness meditation and anti-anxiety thinking strategies that I started realizing that I focused on these things because in some deep seated and distant way I was sure these were threatening me. Either to myself or to my situation. To use an analogy, like crossing the street and being aware of the danger of cars, and hearing any innocent noise as an unwanted mental intruder, even if it was just like a fan running.

It was also a product for me of taking things waaay too personally. That person making noise was interrupting my solitude. And they were doing so deliberately. Now I will never be able to get back into what I was doing. That truck honking is a rude truck. The air conditioner goes on to undermine my concentration*. You get the idea.

work - Do you feel traffic nearby is distracting because it represents people, people who might wander in to talk with you or interrupt what you are doing? Do you tense up at the sound of footfalls?

Sadly I don't think they make any brain anesthetizers that will block out these things. Neither can you change the world to eliminate them. But you can get to the root of your annoyance and defuse that.

*in case you thought this is a rational thing, it is completely irrational.
posted by everyday_naturalist at 5:02 PM on July 12, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for the reply. To answer some questions and comments:

That person making noise was interrupting my solitude. And they were doing so deliberately. Now I will never be able to get back into what I was doing. That truck honking is a rude truck. The air conditioner goes on to undermine my concentration*.

I don't think I take things personally. I know the kid down the is not deliberately being annoying by yelling and crying. It is just a kid and that is what kids do. The air conditioner is not "undermining my concentration". However, it is giving me an earache and making me shiver, which is uncomfortable and irritating.

How stressed have you been?

No more than usual. I have a somewhat stressful job at times, but no more so than most people.

Meditation sounds like an interesting approach that I will look into.
posted by seesom at 1:26 PM on July 14, 2011

ws just checking back to this thread since i've been reading a book that was recommended--seems really helpful for me, potentially.

meditation is wonderful regardless of anxiety level--i would recommend anything by jon kabat-zinn. he has several books, which come with meditation cds. he's got a great calming voice--not new-agey, just matter-of-fact. here he is giving a talk, (meditation is after a long intro)
posted by JBD at 5:17 PM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

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