Silence: an elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow

Cityscape with traffic noise

At least 1m healthy life-years are lost every year in western European countries because of environmental noise, according to World Health Organization.

Noise, it’s everywhere, isn’t it? Loud machines and vehicles are associated with importance and personal status. It’s even infiltrated our language. The idiom; he/she’s a big noise means someone is an important person.

Fire Alarm set too loud
Even if you live out in the sticks there are increasingly loud household appliances to contend with. Mistakenly, we associate noise with efficacy or at social occasions, conviviality. After getting irreparable tinnitus in the 90s from a fire alarm that was set too loud, nowadays, I never go anywhere without ear plugs. Visiting the cinema can be an ear-damaging experience (theatres control the sound levels and the trailers and ads are often set above acceptable norms). I’ve given up on music concerts all together. It just isn’t worth the risk.

Discovering a low tolerance for noise
But before sustaining permanent tinnitus, I was always sensitive to noise. One of my earliest memories is of Mum hoovering the front room and me stamping on the red switch at the back of the machine to silence it. I was then just a toddler.


The offending vacuum cleaner

I still have, ‘tender’ senses, a characteristic of a hypersensitive type. For example, meeting a friend at a noisy café with a growling coffee machine, cacophonous conversation and scraping chairs to contend with, the occasion can turn into a trial rather than a treat. Hyper Sensitive People (HSP) are now becoming better understood mainly because of the book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When The World Overwhelms You by Dr. Elaine N. Aron which was published in 1999. HSP make up around 20% of adults and this comprehensive list of traits is helpful in identifying if you or someone around you is an HSP;

The habits of Highly Sensitive People

*They react strongly to noisy environments and need regular downtime to recover.

*They’ve often been told to stop being so sensitive or to toughen up.

*They agonise over decisions: as well as having great attention to detail, being more aware of consequences they also worry about upsetting others. “But they tend to make very good decisions in the end,” says Dr Aron.

*They notice small details: “An HSP will notice somebody’s new haircut or the design of a hotel carpet when others won’t,” says Dr Aron.

*They’re people pleasers: because they’re so sensitive to criticism they tend to overcompensate.

*They feel other people’s pain: “HSP tend to have incredible empathy and will worry about others a lot and be in tune with how they’re feeling,” says Dr Aron

Light bulb Moment
I completed a mindfulness course in 2014, and the aforementioned book about HSP was recommended to me. After reading the first few pages, I experienced a light bulb moment. At last, at the tender age of 54, I understood why I was different from others and needed to recover from evenings in noisy restaurants or parties, and why other people’s bad moods or unhappiness affected me so much.

Childhood is an important time for helping a child cope with hypersensitivity. If a child is taught to accept and value their emotions instead of being told to toughen up, then this can lead to better mental health in adulthood. One important trait which isn’t mentioned on the list above is that HSPs often have a special affinity with animals. As a child growing up on a smallholding, animals were an extension of my family. Animals didn’t judge or worry about me. They accepted me as I was.

Coping Strategies
However, you don’t have to be HSP to suffer from the ill effects of noise so my coping strategies may help you!

Look for silent household appliances. I recently purchased a quiet vacuum cleaner, and earplugs help me cope with noisy environments. I use paper towels or hand wipes in public toilets instead of Dyson dryers. I have a very understanding husband who also cherishes his peace, and through house-sitting we can spend time in quiet places away from the sometimes overwhelming hubbub of the city. Writing and reading are two favourite activities, neither of which involve noise. I go to a dance class where the teacher is mature about the noise levels of the music. I can enjoy the cinema and theatre as long as earplugs are always at the ready! The Dutch company Alpine sells the best earplugs in terms of comfort and noise control.


A quiet place in Mongolia

Read more about HSP here in an article in the Telegraph.

More in-depth information on HSP at Dr Aron’s website.

Potentially devastating health effects of noise in this Guardian article


About susancarey

Angela writes using pseudonym, Susan Carey. She has dual nationality, GB/NL and lives in Nijmegen. Susan has had short fiction published on multiple platforms and was a runner-up in the 2018 and 2017 Casket of Fictional Delights Flash Competitions. Her writing has also been published and performed by amongst others: Mslexia, Liars’ League, Reflex Fiction, the Casket and of course the wonderful Writers Abroad. In 2020 she published her short story collection, Healer. Tweets at @su_carey
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2 Responses to Silence: an elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow

  1. Sally Robinson says:

    Really interesting, Angela. My daughter is HSP and I remember being impressed by Elaine Aron and recommending her.. Silence is indeed golden!


    • susancarey says:

      Thanks, for commenting, Sally. It’s interesting how it’s becoming more acknowledged these days and you and your daughter have heard of the book. I even heard that supermarkets in the Netherlands are having ‘quiet’ days for people who don’t like too much stimuli while shopping. Not in Amsterdam though, unfortunately.


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