Even after days of rain, the East River flows between Manhattan and Roosevelt Island at a sluggish pace. I try to focus on the easy movement of the waterway as I walk my two dogs on the cement pedestrian path alongside the river. But I can’t — not with the six-lane FDR Drive flanking me on the other side.
Sure, the city adopted anti-honking laws years earlier. But the chorus of horns, the sounds of sirens and exhaust pipes, and the perpetual whoosh of passing vehicles make me clench my jaw and shoulders. The percussive beat of nearby jackhammers adds to the deafening noise, and my heart rate accelerates. We pass plenty of pedestrians who don’t seem bothered by this symphony from hell. But I can’t shake the feeling that I need to escape, and soon.
As soon as I get back to the tiny uptown apartment that I share with my husband, I reach for a beer from the mini-fridge and begin to chug it, fighting back tears. Kumar, watching me from the loveseat, says, “I feel like all this noise is killing you.”
The incident by the river was hardly unique. Since moving to New York City two years earlier, I’d fallen into a daily pattern of having adverse reactions to sound — tension headaches, rapid breathing and cold sweats, plus the occasional wave of nausea. I tried to find a reliable respite for peace and quiet, but it proved tricky. My first-choice destination, Central Park, was usually packed with tourists. And while the riverside path did have a quieter section, I had to walk a mile through heavy traffic to reach it. If I was going to live in New York, I’d need to learn how to get along with its soundscape.
A few weeks later, I mentioned the river incident to my psychiatrist, whom I’d been seeing to manage my anxiety. My doctor was shocked I’d never brought up the issue before. After I spent an hour regaling her with tales of loud sounds and quiet panic, she paused and looked up from her notepad. “This hypersensitivity to sound is likely a symptom of your anxiety,” she told me. “And we need to treat it.”
But we couldn’t be sure, she explained, unless we ruled out other medical explanations. Issues including tinnitus, hearing loss, damage to the ears or brain and migraines can all cause an intolerance to sound. I took a hearing test, which came back normal. And my primary care doctor cleared me of misophonia, an intense dislike of specific sounds, such as gum-chewing or nail-tapping.
We also looked into hyperacusis. While similar to hypersensitivity, hyperacusis describes extreme distress caused by specific types of everyday sounds, rather than chronic exposure to a noisy environment. And it’s thought to be rooted in a malfunction of the auditory pathways and their connections to the central nervous system. The brain mechanisms underlying sound hypersensitivity remain poorly understood.
Once I eliminated the other conditions, I headed back to my psychiatrist’s office. We were going to approach my hypersensitivity to sound similarly to how we’d dealt with my generalized anxiety, first by developing an awareness of my body’s reactions to certain situations, then by working through a number of techniques to prevent those reactions from escalating.
Noticing how my body responded to noise was easy: My muscles reflexively clenched at the sound of a short-stopping city bus. My throat grew tight at the thrum-mmm of a low-flying helicopter. My stomach felt queasy at the high-pitched squeak of overworked subway wheels. Teaching my body to accept the noises was a lot harder.
For one thing, I wondered if it was unnatural to embrace a surround-sound lifestyle. What if my body was trying to tell me that all this noise could hurt me in the long run? While people become sensitive to noise at different levels of exposure, it’s clear that sustained exposure to high-decibel sounds causes negative effects on a mass scale. According to The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want by Garret Keizer, noise pollution is responsible for hearing damage in millions of people around the world, not to mention elevated blood pressure, disturbed sleep and, in specific instances, lower birth rates and increased risk for heart attacks. In other words, nonstop noise isn’t exactly good for us.
Still, I recognized that my reactions to noise were spiraling out of control. Even innocuous sounds made me want to flee. The rumbling of my neighbor’s air conditioner sent me scrambling away from our outdoor patio and into our cramped bedroom.
Per my psychiatrist’s suggestion, I tried to suppress my flight instinct. I took three deep breaths, centered my thoughts, shook out my arms, pre-5K style, and imagined myself like one of those inflatable tube men that twist in the wind in front of car dealerships.
“I’m easy-breezy,” I told myself. “I will let this noise bounce right off of me.”
My psychiatrist helped me understand that my tolerance for city sounds was lower than that of the average urban dweller. I took measures to ration my noise exposure. For one thing, I began wearing headphones during the noisiest parts of my day, such as my morning commute. A lot of the time, I didn’t even plug them in; I just switched on their noise-cancelling setting. Like the stray Xanax I carried in my purse, the headphones weren’t supposed to be a permanent solution. Instead, by blocking out noise for a half-hour in the morning, my headphones helped me preserve the mental resources I’d need to endure noise the rest of the day.
I also began walking my dogs when most of the city was still sleeping. At first, peeling myself out of bed on a Monday at 5 a.m. felt torturous, but the nearly empty fields and gardens of Central Park made the early wake-up call worth it.
After several months of treatment, my noise tolerance started to improve. Not only did I become less sensitive to sounds, I also began to see the city with a fresh perspective — like how I imagined “I love New York”-ers saw it. More and more, I found myself beguiled by the exuberance of this place, rather than exhausted by its commotion. While pushing past produce sellers in Chinatown or following the sounds of live music to city parks, I realized how much I’d missed by letting my anxiety run the show.
Eventually, I was able to stash my headphones in my purse most mornings and brave the subway with naked ears. And I was okay. Sometimes I even basked in the commotion.
Nearly a year after being diagnosed with hypersensitivity to sound, my husband got a medical fellowship in Milwaukee. My symptoms had improved considerably, but I was still deeply relieved by the news. I couldn’t deny what my body was craving. So we headed west and bought a small house in a culturally rich but quiet neighborhood.
Noise from weed whackers, street festivals and drunk bar-goers still occasionally infiltrates our walls. But I’m managing my sound reactivity from the shallow end — not the deafening depths of one of the largest (and, yes, greatest) cities in the world. Now when I retreat to our little backyard, I can hear birdsong. I can finally experience the beautiful side of this hypersensitivity: Their chirping makes my skin tingle with joy. I close my eyes and I listen.