How can I adapt to apartment noise?
July 27, 2015 3:29 AM   Subscribe

I've lived in apartments for a long time, but I've always been very easily bothered by noise. My partner is not affected the way I am. Is it possible to train yourself to be more easygoing, like her, when it comes to the noise you inevitably encounter living in the city?

We just moved into a new apartment and our neighbors make some noise, especially on the weekend. We do have a minor issue, in that our upstairs neighbor stomps around to the point that the ceiling shakes. I'm willing to believe that's the way the building is constructed (it's old), but he was up late tonight and it drove me nuts. The thing is, it's a minor issue. My girlfriend barely noticed, while I was pointing at the ceiling and saying "see, see?" I feel like a crazy person because I managed to take it personally, and even I know he probably has no idea he's making the noise. I'm sure I can suck it up and talk to him or leave a note (and maybe he'll put down rugs or something), but what gets me is that I know it will continue to bother me forever, no matter what changes. And we're new to the building, so unless he's taken up new stompin' habits, it's me who can't adapt to something that hasn't bothered anyone else.

I've complained about the noise in every apartment my girlfriend and I have lived in together, and none of it ever bothered her. I've heard people say "some folks aren't cut out for apartment living," but I'm not exactly at the stage of my life where I can afford to live anywhere else. Practically speaking, it's been a while since noise actually woke me up in the night, and the only thing that ever keeps me from falling asleep is some sort of outrage at having my space violated, not the actual noise itself. I bought a white noise machine, which is great, to a degree (it certainly helps with the tinnitus I've had since childhood), but I can still perceive things above the noise, even if they're so faint I can barely tell they're there. I mean, I know I'm never going to be able to block literally every noise around me. I know the problem is with me. All I can think is that there must be a philosophical approach to all of this.

Has anyone been able to learn to relax when it comes to noise in their living space? Is it possible to change your outlook on personal space? Or am I forever doomed to being really bothered when I hear a slight, innocent noise from a neighbor?

All of this makes me feel incredibly precious, but that's where I'm coming from - please help me stop obsessing about my neighbors' noise and feeling like a crazy person for doing so.
posted by teponaztli to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Oh man I hear you (heh). I struggle with this too. I wonder if its some kind of sensory processing thing that it bugs some of us so much more than others.

The only thing that helped me when I was the little middle flat stuck between two larger flats, one of which had their living room wall next to my bedroom, was to get to know them so the noise came from people i was fond of and not evil annoying strangers. So, instead of "GAH WTF hideous noise is he making"? when he sang and played guitar it was more "aww, it's sweet Billy keeps practising that song he loves, probably good im the only one who can hear".

I figured i reached the height of my affection for my neighbours when they had a screaming match late one night and I snuggled into my covers thinking, ahhh just like going to sleep when I was a kid.
posted by kitten magic at 4:01 AM on July 27, 2015 [8 favorites]

After looking through the apartment guidelines we discovered that our building required 80% of the floor in all units to have some sort of carpeting. Once we informed our upstairs wears-boots-while-pacing-at-3:00 am-regularly neighbor he bought a rug which helped a ton.

For the next door neighbor, I've been thinking about buying some sound absorbing panels to stick up on the wall. There's a huge variety so I'm still not sure what's the best kind to buy, but even if it helps dampen the noise a little bit it will make me feel better.

Also, don't feel like you're being a special snowflake! There's tons of research showing that constant noise, for example living near road or airplane noise, has very real detrimental effects on people.
posted by forkisbetter at 4:14 AM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

This sounds like the sort of thing general Zen/let-it-go meditation talks about. You don't need noise specific solutions, you just need to learn to detach from your sense of outrage. I don't really know where you'd start but you might find it easier to find options thinking if it that way.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 4:16 AM on July 27, 2015

You sound normal to me. Actually, you've described my normal. It can be a matter of feeling in control of your own space. One thing that might help is to buy a large jar and, every time you feel this way, put all the cash and change in the apartment in the jar. As it fills up, open a savings account for a down payment on a house. If you don't deal with cash, open the savings account and transfer $5.00 into it every time. It won't help you ignore the noise but at least you can start thinking about your future quiet space. I recommend you build instead of buy, or take handyman courses so that you can fix up a space for yourself. You will want extra insulation in the walls and the best windows that money on the market. Purchase noise cancelling headphones and home improvement books and start planning.
posted by myselfasme at 4:27 AM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'll confess I found a small degree of comfort in reading your post -- I am EXACTLY like this and super-sensitive to noise myself. One of the worst things about it is wondering whether you're actually sane because it doesn't seem to bother anyone else.

I live in an apartment. Noise still bothers me (especially booms and voices from TV/movies), but this is what I do:

1. Run a fan in my bedroom every night when I'm sleeping, one of those stout little Vornado ones and it's lovely.
2. Run a Dohm white noise machine in my living room. The fan is much better at getting rid of those noises that run just over the sound threshold, though.
3. Get to know your neighbors. kitten magic is absolutely right that the noise matters less when it's someone you care about. This works better in small buildings, but you should go for it regardless of scale.
4. Go for more walks around the neighborhood. This works for two reasons: 1) It's calming, and 2) It temporarily acclimates you to more secondary noise, so the noise you hear when you come back home doesn't sound quite so unnerving.

Noise canceling headphones unfortunately do not work for me 100%. It gets rid of refrigerator hums, but it leaves the wah-wah-wah of voices and TV sounds.
posted by mochapickle at 4:53 AM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I take a very holistic approach to apartment and city noise. Rather than find it annoying, I find it comforting.

Here I am, living by myself in a city 20x larger than the one I grew up in, but really I'm never alone. I have more of a sense of community here, living alone in an apartment, than I ever did in a large, quiet house in a neatly manicured neighborhood. If I'm ever in trouble, like really in trouble, I have 400 neighbors within a block of me who I could call on. I might not know-them-know-them, but I know they're there. I'm never really alone here.

I love going to sleep with noise around me because it reminds me that life doesn't stop when I close my eyes. The world keeps on turning and I'm just one tiny little part of it. I find that very reassuring.

So just try to embrace it.
posted by phunniemee at 5:49 AM on July 27, 2015 [14 favorites]

I am like this too (I had a previous post about it) and honestly nothing helped except for moving into a single family home. I know that you mentioned that is not an option at this point in your life, but could you share a group house a bit further out or something? This may not be an option in NYC or SF, but should be around the same cost for most other metro markets. (I live in DC).

Previously I tried all of the suggested tips: ear plugs, fans, walks, friendliness, noise cancelling headphones, nothing worked and I was miserable.
posted by seesom at 5:51 AM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, this sounds like my normal reaction to this kind of thing. I probably have some degree of sensory processing issue -- you may find looking into that helpful, as there are various strategies that people have developed to manage these reactions. Depending on how much this stresses you out, it's even possible to hire a professional (an occupational therapist) to help you come up with strategies for this kind of thing.

One thing that has been semi-helpful for me is guided meditation (for lack of a better word) to define the boundaries of my space. I basically close my mind and visualize the interior of MY space -- my floors, my walls, and my ceilings, walking around them in my mind. Then I remind myself that THIS is my space. Anything below, to the side, or above is OTHER space and I do not have to be concerned about that space -- I only have to be concerned about what actually takes place in MY space.

I know this sounds very woo-woo, but I've found it helpful. I think one of the reasons why I find neighbors so stressful is that either (a) I feel like they're intruding, or (b) I feel responsible for them (this would be the downstairs neighbors who regularly get to "should I call 911?" levels). Reminding myself of where my responsibility starts and ends is helpful for this. (Also, earplugs do not block all the noise, but can be used as a physical reminder that you are not responsible for noise from other spaces, only for noise from YOUR space.)

Like myselfasme, I also find feeling like I have an exit strategy helpful -- this could be a plan to move to a top-floor apartment (usually the quieter option), or a plan to save up a downpayment.

Finally, check your ceiling light fixtures. If any screws are loose, the fixtures may be rattling and making the noise more apparent.
posted by pie ninja at 5:58 AM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm exactly like you, and my current apartment is particularly noisy...garbage trucks, police constantly, the train, neighbor upstairs and next door.

To sleep, I run a box fan and wear earplugs. I have tinnitus as well and the earplugs are not ideal, but they cut out almost everything. Over the years (I've been here a few years now) I've taken to wearing them even once I get up, when I make my coffee, until I actually need to hear. They're comfortable enough that I barely remember some days. I find that it relaxes me and puts me in a better mood for the day.

I put Airport expresses in every room in my apt. I don't play music loud, but this allows me to have music that's dedicated in every room, and it's the same song everywhere. This gives me a consistent environment with noise that's mine. If I have music on and it's loud next door, I don't think about it as much. If I don't have music on, I'll throw the tv on. Background noise is an excellent distraction.

I have another box fan sealed in the window in the kitchen blowing out. This actually lessens the noise in that room, and it gives me airflow to boot.

I also have the Bose headphones but I can't say I've worn them too many times. I was an absolute freak about the noise, and with what I wrote above, I've gotten to the point where I barely think about it anymore.
posted by nevercalm at 5:59 AM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites] (free rain noise website) helps mask irritating/stressful background noise.

Also earplugs.
posted by Year of meteors at 6:01 AM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Noise sensitivity can be related to hearing loss or other underlying medical issues so it's worth mentioning to a doctor. If there's a problem to treat, that would eliminate or lessen the sensitivity symptom.
posted by Room 641-A at 6:01 AM on July 27, 2015

I think the practical key is to not live between other people. Look for top floor apartments, duplexes, houses rented out (possible in most places except for, say, Manhattan), that sort of thing. It's not a cure-all--I once had downstairs neighbors who played an accordion on the front porch outside my bedroom window in the middle of the night and celebrated birthdays with kazoos at 3 am--but it significantly helps to not have foot traffic noise above you.

Generally, though, I'm with phunniemee. When we lived below a trio of 6 year old triplets, their stomping was a nice, comforting reminder of my own childhood. I even liked it when the accordion neighbors would chat with one another on the same porch. What you get in the city is a sense of community. Proximity is a large part of that.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:15 AM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm right there with you, and I 100% disagree with the notion that it's just a matter of Zen/letting it go. I'm actually quite fine at letting go and just not letting things bother me in general; noise, OTOH, has the capacity to turn me into a raving lunatic, and my sensitivity to noise has actually affected my life really negatively at times. I wish it were otherwise, but it's not. I absolutely believe it's something neurological, not just a matter of getting yourself into the right mindset.

What's helped me is what others have suggested: white noise machines and fans that cover up the noise. I also use a variety of white noise apps: my two favorites are White Noise and Ambient.
posted by holborne at 6:36 AM on July 27, 2015

Best answer: I second the rain noise suggestion. I love white noise, but if it's too regular, you can hear underlying things (beats, voices, steps, etc.) whereas if you get a program that makes irregular noise, its modulations help tune out the unexpected noises. There are a few apps for that - I use Sleep Pillow (it allows you to combine sounds too - so you can combine a rainstorm with crackling fire sound or something).

One thing that helps me both with the spinning thoughts of frustration and the noise is falling asleep while listening to something. This might not be ideal for everyone, but I found that there are audio books, podcasts, and sometimes tv shows that are kind of soothing (Law & Order is one for me - don't judge!), and to which I like to sort of listen without really caring about the outcome so it's easy to fall asleep. If you share a room, it might be harder, but I put in one earbud in the ear I'm not sleeping on if I'm on my side.

As for neighbors, I would advise against leaving a note - I would go up there and speak to him about it in person. I have in the past gone to see neighbors even when their music wasn't objectively too loud and said "I know it's not that loud, but I have a horrible migraine today and I was wondering if you could turn down your bass." It has worked pretty well, and even if they aren't always quiet, I've seen neighbors in the hall ask me if the music was ok with me today. You could say "I have extreme sensitivity to noise - I fall asleep between 10 and midnight and I was wondering if you might consider walking softly during that time" or some other suggestion, and then offer to do something in return. It makes it easier to talk to them in the future about noise that does bother you, and to let go noise that doesn't really bother you. Good luck!
posted by microcarpetus at 6:41 AM on July 27, 2015

Do you have misophonia?

The involuntary reaction and outrage even though you know these aren't actually unreasonable levels of sound make me think of that. Also it is more common in people with tinnitus than in the general population.

So called 'trigger sounds' and trigger contexts can vary from person to person. So for example you might be fine with city traffic noise but very bothered by some apartment living sounds.

It's an actual neurological and psychological condition (albeit one that is not yet very well understood), not just being overly sensitive or picky.

I have misophonia and other than blocking the sounds that bother me with ear plugs/music/white noise, two things that help a little little bit in terms of reducing my reaction to them are (1) exercise, especially cardio, (2) alcohol in moderation (like 1-1.5 beers).

In one of the very small studies that has been done on this, some people reported that caffeine made their misophonia a bit worse so cutting out caffeine might help a bit too.

Cognitive behavorial therapy can supposedly help some too, not with eliminating the reactions to sounds, but with managing the response to them.
posted by thdavis at 6:55 AM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

You and I, we're alike in this regard.

The simplest part of handling it for me was buying foam earplugs in bulk and then always having them around. Next to the bed, in the bathroom, in my desk at work, in my backpack. When I travel, I tuck pairs of earplugs in several different places in case I lose one. I wear them while sleeping, reading, while home alone, while working on the computer, while at the office, while riding on planes, and sometimes at the movies when the sound is up way too loud.

(There was once a trip in Venezuela -- pre earplugs -- where a particular window on the bus I was riding cross-country in had the most annoying rattle in THE WHOLE WORLD and to solve it I took what I think was a 10 Bolivar banknote, tore it into a couple of strips, chewed on it a while, and then shoved the wet mass into my ears. It worked! Later, though, I realized I could just stick a coin between the window pane and its frame and that would stop the rattle, too, and plus people wouldn't look at me funny.)
posted by Mo Nickels at 10:08 AM on July 27, 2015

If you grow up in a house, when you leave home and end up in an apartment with people above and below, the noise from strangers is odd and stressful.

My solution was to move to a house, and it's why I live in the suburbs not somewhere more lively.
posted by w0mbat at 12:01 PM on July 27, 2015

Response by poster: Thank you so much for the responses! Honestly, it's a big help just to know I'm not the only one who reacts to things this way.

With regards to my hearing - yes, I'm sure I have a degree of hearing loss, and I need to look into that. Ten years ago I was tested as having insanely acute hearing ("you could hear a pin drop on felt" was what they told me), but years of playing percussion, if not just getting older, have certainly dampened that somewhat. I've always had tinnitus (I had many ear infections as a child), but I think it's a little louder than it used to be. My father wears hearing aids and still complains about noise, but I would wonder if that's because he doesn't wear them all the time - or if he and I both have some sort of processing issue, as other suggested.

Again, thank you, everyone!
posted by teponaztli at 1:59 PM on July 27, 2015

Best answer: Do the sounds of birds and insects in the countryside drive you nuts?
If it DOESN'T (and it can be just as loud if not louder), then settle down, and start listening to the ecology of the city. The sea like shushing of traffic, the regular rhythm of people living their lives around you, intermittent honks and sirens.

I had a housemate, a loud housemate, who I thought of as a strange bird.
And lo, the urban Housemate has arisen from his nest (so many cushions!), and has started his morning chorus (if he wasn't yodeling or singing while getting ready in the morning, he wasn't really awake yet). He would screech when startled, and walking into a room where someone was sitting on the couch was enough to startle him. Once finished his morning routine, the urban Housemate might walk many hundreds of metres in search of brunch, before returning to sun himself in any available (balcony or rooftop) patch of sun.

People creatures, so fascinating!
posted by Elysum at 4:01 AM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Give the stuff on this page a try-

Meditation can help- I found the ones by Sharon Salzberg particularly helpful as she talks you through meditating on the sounds around you, not responding to them, and taking away any meaning attached to them. A course like this one is great:
I think some of her cheaper courses also include meditating on sounds.

Also, I absolutely swear by custom moulded earplugs- I use these ones: they are rather expensive, but super-comfortable when I sleep on my side and completely cut out the sound of neighbours. They even completely stopped the sound of loud hammering downstairs early yesterday morning!
You can buy cheaper sets that you mould yourself, but it's really worth the investment in getting a professional to do this for you.

I know this won't help you in your current apartment, but it also really helps to live on the top floor!

Good luck...
posted by BobsterLobster at 1:37 PM on July 28, 2015

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