You could just wear noise-canceling headphones like this woman. See how happy and not at all awkward she looks?!

Dr. Naumburg,

I think I’m a “highly sensitive person.”  I am so damn sound sensitive that I can’t stand my kids in the morning right now. I feel like I’m going to have an anxiety attack. I’ve recently realized that my anxiety is almost all about the noise. Noisy day = high anxiety. Quiet day = low anxiety. I almost feel like I need to wear ear plugs. Right now I ask my kids to use quiet voices because it feels like Mommy’s head might explode. Strangely, that doesn’t change their behavior much. Any suggestions for what to do??

Sincerely,

Seeking Silence

Dear Seeking,

Woof. This is a tough one, but an important one to tackle if you don’t want to lose your mind. Here are a few thoughts for you:

First, being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is a real thing*. You’re not imagining it, and it’s not just you being overly stressed (although stress can make you feel even more like an exposed nerve than you did before). It’s about how you’re wired, which means you’ve likely been this way since birth. (All of you parents out there wondering why your kid refuses to wear socks with seams or totally freaks out every time they get within five feet of the fish aisle, read on.)

According to Dr. Elaine Aron, who first coined the term, approximately 20% of the population are HSPs, which statistically speaking means there’s nothing wrong with you. This isn’t something to be cured or fixed, but if you’re not aware of it and how to manage it, it can make life and parenting feel a whole lot harder and less fun.

HSPs tend to be easily overwhelmed by sensory input, such as bright lights, strong smells, loud noises, and children who are constitutionally incapable of keeping their grubby little hands to themselves. In addition, HSPs can feel especially stressed out in chaotic situations with lots of action or movement (aka Life with Kids); combine all of that sensitivity that with their ability to feel their feelings in a really big way, add a few sleepless night, and WHAMO!, you’ve got yourself a big fat anxiety attack.

I’m guessing I haven’t told you anything you don’t already know, so let’s get back to your question. My first recommendation for most folks is to identify their triggers, but it sounds like you’ve already done this – you know that noise is your trigger, or at least one of them. Keep your eyes out for other triggers, most HSPs have more than one.

After that, your best possible course of action is to move to a quiet cottage in the woods where you can welcome your children for brief, supervised visits, but only after you’ve had several hours to rest, stretch, meditate, and prepare yourself for their visit.

On the off chance that’s not going to work for you, focus on making yourself as resilient as possible. Think of it as trigger-proofing yourself. Here are a few tips that often help HSP’s feel a little less sensitive throughout the day; it may take bit of experimentation for you to figure out which ones are the most helpful and workable for you.

  1. Get as much sleep as you can on a regular basis. I know, I know, you’re busy and the evenings are your only quiet time and even when you can sleep, Fluffy keeps waking you up. I get it. You have to figure out how to sleep anyway. This is a non-negotiable if you want to stop feeling like you’re walking around with your skin on inside out all the time.
  2. Exercise will help diffuse the physical tension that builds  up over the course of a day. Some folks prefer high-intensity exercise, while others find a quiet yoga practice calms them down more. The most important thing is that you find something that you can do on a regular basis.
  3. Pay attention to your caffeine, sugar, and alcohol intake. It might be making a difference for you, or it might not. (Sidenote: Why is it always the good stuff that we need to watch out for? Why can’t it be Brussel Sprouts? Or bok choy? I’m excellent at limiting my bok choy intake.)
  4. Acknowledge that you need decompression time (whatever that looks like for you – a long walk, time alone in a dark room, a few minutes staring glassy-eyed at the wall), and work that time into your day as often as possible. Seeing as how you’re a working parent with young kids, I know you’re not looking for more ways to fill your time, but even a few minutes of quiet – maybe in the pick-up line at the end of the day – can make a big difference.
  5. Spend as much time outside as you can.
  6. Cut down on the media input, including social media, TV news, and violent or excessively loud shows and movies. The constant barrage of shitty news, disturbing images, and people doing horrible things to each other isn’t good for any of us, but it’s even more discombobulating for HSP’s.
  7. Trigger-proof your house as much as possible. Install dimmers on your light switches, and use them liberally. Decrease your clutter if possible; that can be triggering, too. Get the noise-making toys into the basement or out of the house, and don’t be shy about performing batteryectomies on loud toys whenever necessary.
  8. Finally, it’s ok to ask your kids to be quiet. You can’t expect them to be quiet all the time, and you do want to give them time and space to get their ya-ya’s out, but try to balance that with a little time and space for your own sanity, too.

I just threw a lot of information at you. Please try not to feel too overwhelmed by it. You don’t have to do it all. Pick the options that seem most relevant, useful, and workable for you and your family. And when reality steps in and mucks up all of your best laid plans and you end up getting completely overwhelmed and losing your sh*t with your kids anyway, cut yourself some slack. It’s ok. These things happen to all of us. Cut back on the bok choy, lock yourself in your sensory deprivation chamber for a few minutes, and do the best you can.

*If you’re wondering whether you or your child are Highly Sensitive People, check out these self-tests on Dr. Aron’s website.

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