If that hum sounds like a roar in your head—one that’s keeping you from your work, say—you’ve come to the right place. A recent study found that people with ADHD rated background noise—from the humming of air conditioning to a flickering candle—as 138 percent louder than a control group did. That’s enough to turn background conversation (65 decibels) into the perpetual rumble of a blender (90 dB). Imagine that in your head all day, every day.
Auditory sensitivity, a.k.a. auditory hypersensitivity, disproportionately impacts people with ADHD and autism—for whom the sound of multiple people talking at once can be overwhelming—but it also affects people with no diagnosis at all.
Certain sounds irritate, distract, or overwhelm you? Noises, repetitive notes, and tapping seem almost unbearable? Welcome to the auditory sensitivity club. “It can be really difficult for people with any type of auditory hypersensitivity to focus,” says psychologist Michelle Frank, Psy.D., director of the Enrich Relationship Center of Colorado and author of A Radical Guide for Women with ADHD.
What’s more, distraction is in the ear of the beholder. “The need for earplugs doesn’t come from a diagnosis, but rather from the person’s individual sensory profile,” says Emily Tritz, O.T., an occupational therapist at Kansas City Developmental Therapies in Olathe, Kansas. Adds Dr. Frank, “Some people may need noise-cancelling earphones, while others would benefit from the same background noise.”
So it’s complicated. What’s a distracted Mental reader to do? First, accept there will be distractions; there’s not much we can do about that in 2022. Second, know thyself, says Tritz—and your individual sensory profile. Finally, peruse the list of 2022 Best of Mental Health winners in this category to help you lower the volume and find new peace…and productivity.
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Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700, $379
When we sought out the top noise-reducing ear gear, the first person we asked was a highly successful, anxious friend who was only recently diagnosed with ADHD in his early 40s. “You’re going to laugh,” he told us. “But in my home office, I wear the earmuffs that airport workers do.” Ultimately, however, we were looking for headphones so we could selectively sync them with our phone or laptop. These Bose wireless, noise-canceling headphones drown out everything and, though pricey, aren’t as expensive as other competitors. They’re also a fave of some TikTokers who have autism and use them to help regulate emotions and drown out sensory distractions.
Some people find noise-canceling headphones useful for phone calls because they can focus on calls as they take a walk (for the bonus of burning off some energy), says Dr. Frank. If you’re using an app to learn a new language, they can keep you in the zone. If you’re using them for guided meditation, they can help you focus on letting go. And yep, you can totally use them to blast nothing at all, something one Mental writer did constantly back in her cubicle days, to dull all the commotion around her.
Loops Experience, $29.95
If you have sound-related sensory issues, “you might need different things, environmentally- and sensory-speaking, in order to really show up in the best way possible,” says Dr. Frank. Sometimes that means inserting a little quiet calm into your life—or, literally, your ears. “Some people may not be able to block out background noise, and everyday sounds may be aversive to them,” says Tritz. “Earplugs can help block out or mute sounds to support attention, focus, and overall self-regulation.”
For those with ADHD, Dr. Frank likes these jewelry-like, low-noise-reduction Loops earplugs. “They don’t cancel out all noise but they cancel out a little bit, allowing you to cultivate focus” without unnervingly blocking out the whole world, she says. (According to the brand, “most earplugs muffle tones,” while Loops Experience filters them.) And as one TikToker with autism Tok’d, Loops give a slight feeling of weight to counter overstimulation.
Because of their 18-decibel noise reduction, they’re great for generally noise-sensitive folks at concerts or in other highly stimulating locations like shopping malls or airports where you want to hear but not be overwhelmed by sound. A 2021 study found that earplugs effectively reduced anxiety in coronary patients—and hey, if it worked for them, it just might work for you as you rifle through the sale racks.
Brown Noise Machine
Yogasleep Travelcube Portable Sound Machine, $20.99
We Mental-ites first discovered the brown noise phenomenon on YouTube, where fans touted its benefits for drowning out distraction and anxiety (for ADHD-havers, especially). The low-frequency sound has not been extensively studied, but scientists who have studied white and pink noise believe it would have these suggested effects.
We like the Yogasleep Travelcube for our zen concentration needs because it’s compact enough to take to the office and back home again. The subtle brown noise, lower-pitched than white noise (which the Yogasleep Travelcube also has), sounds kinda like wind and rain. Sigh. Doesn’t that sound great?
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Check Out Our Other Best of Mental Health 2022 Categories
Don’t Tell Me to Calm Down (But I Probably Should)
I Just Cried (or: I Couldn’t Sleep)
Oh, Crap, I Have to Go Somewhere