When my twins were infants, any sound they would make caused me anxiety; sounds equaled need, and I was absolutely exhausted from meeting theirs, plus those of their older sister who was still a toddler. But the worst was at night when the babies were finally asleep and I attempted to sleep too. I knew they would be up again in an hour, and the pain of waking up every hour or two until it was time to get up for work almost broke me. The anticipation of being woken up was as bad as actually being woken up. I would debate if it was worth falling asleep at all. It took about a year of this before all three of my kids were more likely than not to sleep through the night, but I can still feel the disorienting, near-nauseous feeling of stumbling to their aid at all hours. The pandemic has caused these feelings to resurface. But this time, it’s not sleep that’s the problem; it’s now the noise pollution while they are awake that is breaking me. The sounds of my children — even the happy sounds — are making me very stabby.
Like most parents, I have been with my kids almost non-stop since March. I’m grateful, though, for a responsible school district that has been able to safely support part-time in-person learning. I know so many other parents haven’t had that option, and I can’t imagine never getting a break. For me, it’s not just the background noise of other people existing in the same space. I can tune that out like I did in fancy, pre-pandemic days when I could work from a coffee shop once in a while. What stresses me out to irrational levels are the constant bursts of shouting, crying, squealing, loud music, etc., that I can’t anticipate or control.
I felt a little better about my desires to muzzle my children when I learned that my reaction to their constant noise has a scientific explanation. Trevor Cox, an acoustics engineering professor, says that our response to sounds can be learned, and what can heighten our annoyance is a lack of control. “The most annoying sounds are those that get in the way of whatever you’re trying to do. With everyone working at home right now, a neighbor’s DIY drilling might be the most annoying sound.” Ding, ding, ding! The unpredictability of these sounds combined with the unpredictability of everything else right now means I am constantly on edge. I am more sensitive to the sounds of traffic, airplanes, and snow plows. Even happy sounds make me angry if they are too loud or sudden. Turns out, I’m not alone in this; an unscientific poll I conducted on social media revealed that lots of people are extra annoyed by all kinds of sounds, but much more so since they’ve been cooped up as a result of the pandemic.
The sound of my children laughing when they’re rough-housing. I know it should be considered a joyful noise, but that sound does something to my brain that says “SOMEONE IS ABOUT GET HURT AND START CRYING ANY SECOND! – Katey, New York
People chewing food has always been bad for me, but it’s gotten really unbearable in recent months. – Glynis, Ontario
Since the pandemic I crave silence because the house is always noisy. The TV is always on and someone is always talking. If I leave the house by myself I don’t even turn on the radio on in the car. – Lynne, Pennsylvania
My 9 and 10 year olds seem to have regressed back to toddlerhood in some ways. So, generally all kid whiny noises, and the incessant mommymomMOM that has not stopped for nearly 11 months. – Sarah, New York
Many of us already have misophonia, which is a condition that elicits strong reactions to sounds, especially sounds produced by other people. (This is also called marriage, FYI.) But we have these triggered reactions to someone chewing or crinkling a bag of chips because in addition to interaction with the auditory system in our brain, sound can affect the amygdala and hippocampus. Both of those regions impact our emotions, but the amygdala is particularly sensitive to crying or music. This is why our emotional state is what will determine what sound we consider to be the most annoying and why we can have different reactions to the same song on different days.
It’s safe to say that our current collective emotional state is that of a dumpster fire, but I wanted to know what sounds throw gasoline onto the flames. My polling revealed (with very little surprise) that mouth sounds drive all of us batty. Chewing, slurping, teeth brushing, whistling, humming, licking — think dogs going to town on some part of their body or a toy filled with peanut butter — and teeth scraping on silverware will make us stabby AF. Repetitive sounds are maddening too. Pens clicking, feet tapping, an unanswered phone or alarm clock, a ticking clock, sniffing, snoring, coughing, and knuckle cracking send people into rage mode. These all made sense to me, but I was surprised to learn that several of my friends have aversions to the sound of coins rubbing together or styrofoam touching itself. The sound of the friction makes some people nauseous.
David from Michigan says, “It’s not so much ‘annoying’ as completely intolerable, but the sound of styrofoam touching itself or most other surfaces is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. I cannot deal.”
Fun fact: the sound of vomiting elicits a visceral response because the first step in our hearing process is right next to the disgust center of our brain. This is a built-in defense mechanism to keep out toxins. Throwing up equals bad, so our brains tell us to avoid whatever causes it. I’m not saying our children or partners are toxic, but based on the way our bodies react to their sounds, it seems as though we’re trying to expel them and their noises from our presence.
The noise pollution has sapped my creativity, patience, and desire to be around most people. I feel a little less guilty knowing I’m not alone. I also feel justified knowing that brain science supports my strong reactions to sound. I’m trying to not be outwardly cranky, but Amy G. from Vermont sums it ups pretty well: “Our poor families. They can’t eat, breathe, practice good hygiene, do hobbies, play, fight, or sleep without pissing us off.”