Hypersensitive to Sound? Here’s What Your Body’s Trying to Tell You

If you have ADHD, OCD or anxiety, you may be more sensitive to sound than the average person.
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Nails on a chalkboard or squealing car brakes are universally unpleasant. But if everyday noises seem to cause you extraordinary stress, you could have a condition that makes you hypersensitive to sounds.


There are no tests for sound hypersensitivity, "so it is a subjective experience," says Amy Sarow, AuD, a clinical audiologist and Audiology Lead at Soundly.

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But you might be more sensitive to sound than most if certain everyday sounds make you feel agitated, uncomfortable or angry, or even cause you physical pain, she notes.

Though sound sensitivities can't usually be cured, there are ways to manage them. The best strategy starts with figuring out what's driving your discomfort.

Here's a look at some of the most common culprits and what you can do about them.

1. You Have Hyperacusis

Hyperacusis is a rare hearing disorder where normal, everyday sounds like water running or the hum of a car engine are perceived as unbearably loud, frightening or even physically uncomfortable.


"For example, an individual may experience any sound at average conversational volume as intolerable," Sarow says.

The noises are often accompanied by ear ringing, ear pain or feeling like your ears are about to pop.

Anyone can get hyperacusis, but it's most commonly triggered by long-term exposure to loud noises (like construction or loud music) or a sudden exposure to loud noise (like fireworks), per the Cleveland Clinic.


Some people also develop it after surgery or a head injury, as a reaction to a medication or after certain infections, including ear infections and Lyme disease.

Hyperacusis is also linked to several other conditions — you may be more at risk for it if you have:

  • Anxiety
  • Autism
  • Depression
  • Down syndrome
  • Migraines
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Tempromandibular joint syndrome (TMJ)
  • Tinnitus



Fix It

Hyperacusis is manageable with sound therapy and counseling, says Sarow, during which you're exposed to progressively louder sounds to make the experience more manageable.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you cope with negative feelings associated with loud volumes, too.

2. It's Misophonia

People with misophonia — another type of hearing disorder — experience rage or disgust when they hear certain noises. Common culprits include the sound of someone else eating, drinking or breathing, according to a June 2021 paper in ‌The Journal of Neuroscience‌.

Unlike hyperacusis, it's the specific sound rather than the volume that triggers a reaction, Sarow says.


Fix It

Sound therapy and counseling can make misophonia more manageable. You'll work with a sound therapist to gradually eliminate your reflex to the irritating sound and create a more positive association, says Sarow.

3. You Have Tinnitus

Tinnitus, a condition marked by ringing or pulse in your ears when no sound is present, is more common in older adults, and it doesn't always cause sound hypersensitivity. But nearly half of people with tinnitus have some degree of hyperacusis, according to a November 2020 paper in ‌Current Opinion in Physiology‌.

Though experts don't fully understand the connection, "both involve a functional connection between the auditory and limbic systems that result in reactivity to sound," Sarow says.


Fix It

Therapy can be helpful for managing tinnitus (and the negative feelings that come with it) and for helping you learn to tolerate progressively louder noises.

White noise machines and noise-masking devices worn in your ears can also help drown out the ringing, the Mayo Clinic notes.

If your tinnitus is caused by an underlying condition, like a blood vessel problem, surgery to fix the problem can help clear up the tinnitus.

4. It's Anxiety or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Some evidence shows that having anxiety or OCD might make you more prone to misophonia, Sarow notes.

According to the International OCD Foundation, the brains of people with anxiety or OCD might be more sensitive to all kinds of sensory stimuli, which could cause certain sounds to be irritating or tough to tolerate.


Fix It

Again, therapy may be the best option for learning how to better tolerate sounds that set you off. Half of people with misophonia and OCD who underwent eight bi-weekly sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy experienced an improvement in their symptoms, found one August 2017 study in the ‌Journal of Affective Disorders‌.

5. You Have ADHD

People with ADHD, a condition marked by impulsivity and trouble focusing, are more sensitive to sensory information, including sounds, according to Sarow.

Certain sounds might cause you to feel overstimulated, distracted or anxious, to the point where you experience physical symptoms like a headache, dizziness or nausea, notes the Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA).

Fix It

There's no cure for sensory overload when you have ADHD. But you can reduce the feelings of overwhelm by pinpointing the sounds that seem to trigger you and then limiting your exposure. 

Sensory aids like noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs can help too, per the ADDA. And so can a daily relaxation routine: Yoga, deep breathing and meditation are all great ways to manage the stress that can come with sensory overload.

When to See a Doctor About Sound Sensitivity

Having extreme sensitivity to sounds can be stressful and make it harder to work, go to school and do the things you enjoy.

If this sound sensitivity is causing you emotional distress, interfering with your daily life or work activities, or causing difficulty in your relationships, you should see a professional for help, Sarow says.

"An evaluation from a neurologist, an ENT or a psychologist can help determine the cause and best treatment procedure," she notes.




Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.