Hear No Evil

Learning that I wasn’t the only noise sensitive person in the world inspired me to be a lot more proactive about avoiding stressful noise. I decided it was time for ear muffs.

Black furry ear muffs with caption - No, silly, not these. If you’re in a place with cold winters, that may conjure up fluffy images, but it turns out there is another kind. Sound reducing ear muffs are made for people who work with loud equipment, or shoot guns for fun, which explains why I never heard of them until I started reading survival tips from introverts and HSPs.

My new “Thunder T3” ear muffs arrived a couple of months ago. No one could call them fashionable – I feel like an astronaut in a 50s sci-fi film. They are light in weight, though, despite their bulk.

The best thing about the ear muffs is that I can instantly reduce problematic sound. As I have mentioned before, the bothersomeness of noise can escalate sharply, like in a matter of seconds. With my neighbor’s barking dog, for example, it’s as if someone is standing next to me with a large rubber mallet, and bouncing it repeatedly off my head, banging a little harder and a little faster with each stroke. My sense of urgency skyrockets, and dickering with foam ear plugs, which can be frustrating to apply at any time, becomes unbearable, especially since they don’t help that much even when I get them in.

The ear muffs have drastically reduced the frequency of such experiences. I used to have to choose between trying to ignore the unwanted sound clawing at my brain, or dropping whatever I was doing to try and deal with it at the (often unsympathetic) source. Either way, the interruption factor was as much of a stressor as the noise itself, and lingered long after the noise stopped. Multiple noise events could keep me stressed all day. Between the barker, the remodelers, the yard services, and the extrovert next door, they often did. Preventing all that is a major improvement!
Howard Leight Thunder T3 ear muffs and box
There are some drawbacks to the particular ear muffs I selected, however. Although my head is narrow, and my ears small, they are still pretty snug. Restrictive clothing is another of my sensitivities, and after awhile I find I want to take them off, which has led to the interesting discovery that a lot of those highly stressful sound events are of short duration.

The ear muffs are also a little on the warm side, since the edge of the padded cup that surrounds each ear is vinyl. Surprisingly, it does not get sweaty or sticky where it contacts my head (the presence of my hair may partially account for this). However, being hot is another of my most rapidly escalating sensitivities, so on hot days, I have had to choose my poison. Luckily, that time of year is about over, and the warming factor may actually be welcome in the cooler seasons.

Since the ear muffs completely surround your outer ear, you can wear ear buds or ear plugs with them. I don’t do this very often, but there are certain noises they are not very good at screening out – airplanes, bass, electrical hums. In fact, they can actually make these sounds more annoying by screening out all the ambient sound that was distracting by overlaying them. Also, the closer the sound is in proximity, the more you can hear it, which is intentional, since people in factories need to talk to each other.

However, for most suburban neighborhood noise the ear muffs are great. They are also helpful if you have animal companions who feel strongly that dinnertime should be an hour earlier each day than it was the day before, and spend that whole hour arguing their case while you are trying to work.

A package of Mack's silicone putty ear plugs.Unless you sleep on your back and never move, I can’t imagine ear muffs would be comfortable for sleeping. That brings me to Mack’s silicone putty ear plugs. These are slightly oily, slightly sticky wax-like blobs. You knead to soften, and smash them over (but not into) your ear canal. I cut one in half for my small ears. The stickiness helps hold them in. They are not as quick to apply as ear muffs, but easier than foam ear plugs.

They are reusable (some user reviews even mentioned running them through the washer in a lingerie bag when they started to discolor), and very portable. I carry mine in a tin breath mints box. Although they are not as effective as the ear muffs at completely blocking sounds, they make things sound farther away. They are actually better than ear muffs at reducing thumping bass, but equally ineffective for electrical hums, alas. I have found them helpful in an office environment, and also in combination with the ear muffs for loud and near noise (like hammering on the other side of the wall I am sitting next to).

One last thing I want to mention is ear buds. Maybe every other noise-sensitive person on the globe has already discovered this, but turtleneck ear buds (as I call them) are both more comfortable and more noise-blocking than the flat disk kind. They usually come with a set of cowls in 3 different sizes – don’t be afraid to use two different sizes if one of your ears is larger than the other. I won’t tell.

Close up of Panasonic ear buds I have been really happy with the Panasonic RPHJE120K ear buds that I purchased from Amazon. I am hard on ear buds – I not only use them heavily, I snag them on things constantly. They have held up well so far (3 months). I find that I sometimes forget to remove them when I am no longer listening to anything, as it is just fine to have the ambient noise level muted a little. My only complaint is that there is no little doohicky that slides up the ear buds when you aren’t using them to keep them from tangling. Since they are nice and long, this is a real problem, and a rather strange oversight.

UPDATE: I bought these in July 2014, and they worked perfectly until one side went out in February 2018. This is seriously amazing considering how heavily I use them, and how often they get yanked because they got caught on something, especially given the cost. They got a little break about 2 years in, when I mislaid them for two months and bought another pair. There are some things an HSP just can’t go without. So now I have a second set (for which I paid even less) all ready to go. I did switch out the rubber tips because they made my ear canals itch and peel. I replaced them with silicone tips. My ear canals still peel (maybe that is unavoidable when you have something rubbing on your skin for hours a day), but at least they they don’t itch anymore.

I bought all of the above on Amazon. The ear muffs were under $24 including shipping. I also looked at 3M Peltor X-Series, which might be a better choice for people with larger heads (I later had a chance to use these, and found them very similar to the Thunder T#s in terms of comfort, fit, and what sounds they blocked. Maybe they are a little less snug, but I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend them to person’s with large heads). The Panasonic ear buds were $8.50 ($7.08 including shipping the second time around), and the Mack’s ear plugs were $4 for a 6-pack. I found the user reviews very helpful – definitely check these out before making a buying decision. They steered me away from some choices that would not have worked for me. I also looked at products and user reviews at http://www.earplugstore.com.

5 thoughts on “Hear No Evil

  1. I actually had to chuckle a couple of times because I recognize myself in your sensitivities so much. I have long ago started using ear buds (I don’t even know why anyone would use “disks,” as you call them (I don’t know their correct name?)), too, and they often save my world.

    I always thought heat AND cold sensitivity was a weird thing about me but now that you say it, might this be HSP linked too? I always joke about how I have no temperature regulation; my body instantly assumes the temperature around me, and I frequently have “heat attacks”, for instance in crowded subways (crowds AND heat…), as if I were menopausal (ehm, I’m 26). How do you deal with that?

    • Avoid crowds like the plague? Seriously. I avoid public transit during rush hours at all costs, and am very grateful for the combination of telecommuting and flexible work schedule that allows me to do this. If that’s not an option, hmm – maybe a discreet ice pack in your bra, or the crown of your hat?

      That’s interesting what you say about temperature regulation. I’m several years post-menopausal now, and my hot flashes were moderate compared to many women’s (thank god for all those years of eating tofu), but my temperature regulation is still a lot more abrupt than I remember it being before menopause. Now it’s like a thermostat that doesn’t kick on until the room is just a little too cold, and doesn’t turn itself off until it’s too hot, so I’m forever hopping up and opening/closing windows that I just closed/opened a few minutes before. I believe temperature regulation is a function of estrogen, so that may be my life going forward :(

      I have summer SAD as well as the winter variety, and have found it to be less manageable. Temperatures above 75 can propel me abruptly into an angry, snappy depression (except in the desert. It’s true what they say about a dry heat being more tolerable). This is a major issue with exercise. If I’m working up a sweat, I’m also experiencing a depressive episode, and feeling seriously cranky. I live in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country because it’s also one of the few places in the U.S. with sunny winters AND cool summers.

      Heat waves are infrequent and of short duration here, but when we do have one, I drink a lot of ice water, wet my hair and/or shirt to keep cool, and postpone outdoor errands until cooler evenings or early mornings, or until the weather cools down again. It’s hard to get much work done, as my office faces south, with many windows, which makes it an efficient solar oven! Again, a flexible schedule comes in very handy for working around difficult weather.

      I do think temperature sensitivity can be a part of being an HSP (here’s a 2007 newsletter article by Elaine Aron in which she discusses temperature sensitivities, clothing choices, and shopping). I’ve always been the first person in a room to get cold, though yoga taught me to breathe more abdominally, which helped enough that I don’t walk around with blue fingernails all winter anymore. I have also learned to put on a hat and socks when I begin to feel cold. I have to be careful what kind of socks and shoes I wear if I’m going to be at all active (i.e., walking), though, as my feet heat up really quickly, and that heats up the rest of me. Which is why I prefer being barefoot, or at least sockless in open sandals, even in cool weather.

      Since summer SAD is a sensitivity to humid heat, and winter SAD is about reactions to light (or lack thereof), I’ve wondered whether SAD might be more common in HSPs, or even be related to HSPS. Sadly (hee), SAD research has dropped off dramatically in the past 10 years, so we probably won’t learn the answer to that anytime soon.

      • Oh wow, thank you for the informative reply as well as the newsletter link :)

        Winter has always affected me severely up to the point when I got a winter lamp for Christmas a few years ago. Ever since then, the darker seasons have become much more enjoyable!! I try to sit in front of my little lamp maybe half an hour a day whilst writing or reading or simply having tea — and if I do that more or less daily, I don’t even notice the gloominess of autumn anymore. It’s been a huge help.

        I have never been officially diagnosed with summer or winter SAD but I do experience some of what you’re describing also with regards to the warmer season (especially humid areas are killing me!), except a few more degrees upwards, luckily. In any case I never really thought about it but it is as you say, when I work up a sweat, I get grumpy / aggressive, which is part of why I have always been very reluctant towards strenuous activities. Also, as Aron describes in the newsletter, heat doesn’t just trigger discomfort, it triggers panic. I never even thought about it but that’s exactly what I feel when the sun is burning down on me when I for instance caught a sunny spot on a bus and can’t change seats or move to the shade. I also have to take great care of not overheating as soon a my feet are covered or tucked away in warm boots it can become a problem of heat in the middle of winter ;) I am famous for sticking my feet out from under the duvet because if I don’t do that, I WILL overheat in a matter of seconds.

        Oh dear, we are complicated :D

      • I hang my feet off the bottom of the bed, too – no California Kings for me, or I’d be in trouble :)

        Me too again on the sunny bus seat thing, though I do my best to visualize the route before I select my seat. Hard to predict which side will be sunniest when I travel at mid-day, though. I’ll give up a sunny window seat for a shady aisle one, even if I know I’ll get battered with elbows and backpacks there. Very few buses are air-conditioned here, and the only windows that open are little top ones, so traveling during a heat wave is a nightmare.

        I think public transit is challenging for HSPs AND introverts for multiple reasons. I had a rental car for a few days awhile back, and there was so much less stress in so many ways – temperature, time, uncertainty, being seen, invasive music. It was like traveling with my own private shell.

        But I love my planet. I gave up my car 25 years ago when I first heard about melting ice caps (I’d been seeing disturbing weather changes for awhile, but I didn’t feel certain there was something really wrong until that). I thought I’d have to wait maybe 5 years until affordable electric cars came around. I’m still waiting.

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