The human body is a fascinating place, full of infinite variety — including differences in the nervous system. The same stimuli that some people readily ignore can drive others to new heights of frustration and physical discomfort.
People with chronic pain aren’t necessarily more sensitive than others. However, their nervous systems can become overactivated from the constant barrage of internal and external stimuli, causing them to react more strongly to new input. It’s like trying to plug one more cord into an overloaded outlet — things can flare.
Researchers are still exploring the link between certain health conditions and hypersensitivity to stimuli. Here’s what they know so far about why chronic pain can make you sensitive to noise.
How Your Brain Processes Stimuli
Your brain receives most sensory information in the thalamus, which then sends this data to various regions of the cerebral cortex designed to process the given input type. Most people only think of humans as having five senses: vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste.
However, people also receive input from gravity and acceleration, temperature, pain sensations inside the body (interception), and limb positioning (proprioception). Information comes in through your sensory receptors, neurons throughout the body that transmit signals to your brain.
Therefore, you’re constantly bombarded by stimuli, both internal and external. Some of it you can control, such as how you move your body through space. You can also narrow your perception to focus only on certain sensations — think of conversing with a friend amid a noisy party background. You concentrate on what they are saying, excluding the other input. However, this conscious effort takes energy.
Sensory Overload and Chronic Pain
People with chronic pain have conditions expected to last at least 12 months or until death. Their disorders often put them at risk of functional and cognitive decline, and sensory processing differences could play a role in this decompensation.
Many reasons may contribute to why sensory overload and chronic pain often coincide. One may begin in infancy. When children are born, their brain circuits aren’t fully developed for processing sensory input. They use patterns of information from the external world to complete the process, attuning the circuits to the types of inputs they’re most likely to receive. It’s why children raised in isolation without sensory stimulation fail to thrive.
However, researchers have long drawn a link between children raised in abusive environments and chronic pain conditions in adulthood. It’s not unreasonable to think that children who reached critical brain development periods amid such chaotic environments developed neural circuits acutely attuned to threats. As a result, they become sensitive and reactive, adding an element of fear to every unpleasant sensation as they brace themselves for the worst yet to come.
Light and Sound Sensitivity Anxiety
You can see similar hypersensitivity among individuals who experienced trauma later in life. You might be most familiar with the idea of a veteran who flies into a panic when a car backfires, fearing the sound of gunfire. In such individuals, the HPA axis, the brain pathway responsible for fight-or-flight, becomes overactive, meaning that stimuli that wouldn’t frighten the average person become terrifying.
Could a similar dynamic explain the light and sound sensitivity anxiety that people with chronic pain often manifest? For example, you might know someone with migraine disease who refuses to enter room lit with fluorescent lights. The invisible pulsing may or may not trigger an attack — but the terror that it might happen prompts the individual to alter their behavior.
Unfortunately, this anxiety can make the pain worse when it does strike. There’s enormous comorbidity between chronic pain and mood disorders like depression and anxiety, and researchers have done significant studies on the link. They’ve found that both depression and anxiety worsen pain perception, although it’s a bit of a chicken and egg question as to which occurred first, contributing to the other.
Additionally, anxiety causes your body to release two stress hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. While these chemicals give you a burst of energy for outrunning hungry lions, you can’t run away from pain. These substances also spur inflammation, one of the principal contributors to pain throughout the body. The result is often a vicious cycle, with anxiety increasing pain, and pain resulting in greater fear about what may be happening inside the body.
As the spiral grows outward, sensitivity to noise increases, turning whispers into screams. This hypersensitivity doesn’t restrict itself to sound. Some people may find certain aromas unbearable. Others could feel considerable pain from a feather-soft touch.
Finally, remember that people with chronic pain are also constantly bombarded by signals from inside their bodies. It competes with outside stimuli, causing overload. Visualize again that overloaded circuit — the individual might not be able to tell what final plug will cause sparks to fly. However, it’s only a matter of time before all that stimulation becomes too much. When you combine that dynamic with fear of the inevitable, it’s unsurprising that these folks often have to seek time-outs in quiet, dimly lit rooms to recover.
8 Coping Strategies for Sensory Overload and Chronic Pain
What can you do if you’re one of the many Americans who suffer from sensory overload and chronic pain? The following interventions can lessen light and sound sensitivity anxiety and help you recover more quickly when overwhelmed.
1. Dull the Roar
Muffle excess noise however you can. Some people find success with white noise machines — they can be a blessing if your partner snores and the slightest noise disturbs your slumber. Inadequate sleep increases pain levels.
You may also find relief from earplugs and noise-canceling headphones. While the latter can get pretty pricey, you can pick up a pack of the former for less than $5 at nearly any department or hardware store.
2. Wear Shades
If you’re sensitive to light and noise, a pair of quality shades can make a difference — especially with migraines. Please don’t feel embarrassed about wearing them in the store. If you feel that uncomfortable, invest in a pair with a slightly rosy tint to the lenses, so it simply appears you’re being fashionable.
Consider a pair of blue light glasses if you work on the computer. These devices block the problematic wavelength associated with headaches, eye strain, and dry eyes.
3. Try Gradual Immersion
People with specific phobias, such as spiders, often turn to exposure therapy to overcome their irrational fears. Fortunately, you can use a modification on this technique to overcome light and sound sensitivity anxiety.
Try gradually immersing yourself in ever-more brighter and noisy environments. Be gentle with yourself, taking baby steps and limiting your exposure to small doses until you feel more comfortable that your surroundings won’t always trigger a pain increase.
4. Decrease Stress
Stress exacerbates chronic pain, which in turn, can make your noise sensitivity worse. Begin including natural, holistic mitigation strategies in your life today. Examples include:
- Engaging in a hobby
- Talking out your troubles with a friend or therapist
Additionally, take care of your physical needs. Your pain perception will increase if you’re malnourished or exhausted.
5. Find a Support System
You can find support groups for nearly any chronic condition online, including those specializing in people with sensitivity to noise. Associating with others who genuinely “get it” can help you feel better. Plus, you can swap coping strategies with people who understand your needs.
6. Practice 20/20/20
This technique helps prevent eye strain from staring at a computer for too long. It involves stopping every 20 minutes to look at a different object at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
However, you can add a twist when you find yourself in noisy environments where the din drives you crazy. Take breaks every 20 minutes where you hone in on one specific sound. Doing so may trick your perception into feeling less overwhelmed.
7. Find Your Haven
Noise sensitivity can sometimes overwhelm you, even if you take precautions. Create a haven where you can escape the madding crowds — and all their hubbub. For example, you might take extra steps to soundproof your bedroom if you live in a noisy apartment. The same blankets that buffer the din can keep light from creeping through your windows if all your senses go into overload.
8. Create a Coping Tool Kit
Unfortunately, you will encounter times when you can’t escape excessive noise unless you become a hermit. What can you do if your headphones don’t cancel out everything, and you feel your stress and pain levels climbing?
Create a coping tool kit that contains some of your favorite comfort objects. It might include a backup pair of earplugs to put on beneath your headphones, a cozy blanket, a stress ball, and rescue medications.
Why Chronic Pain Makes You Sensitive to Noise
There’s a high correlation between sensory overload and chronic pain. Multiple theories explain why these individuals often suffer disproportionately from stimuli others readily ignore.
Now that you understand more about light and sound sensitivity anxiety, you can take proactive measures to reduce it. Try employing the strategies above and treat yourself with TLC — quietly.
Author – Beth is the Managing Editor and content manager at Body+Mind. She is passionate about writing about fitness, diet, fitness, mental health, and parenting. In her spare time, Beth enjoys trying out new fitness routines and recipes.