Hello dear friends!
Imagine you’re in a crowded subway station on Monday morning or a restaurant during the Saturday night rush. Everywhere you look there are people. A dozen conversations converge on your ears. Not a millisecond goes by without some kind of movement or sound, and your brain is struggling to keep up. Whistles, bells, cell phone chimes. Yells, laughs, sighs. The clanking of silverware. The opening and closing of doors. Heavy footfalls. The ever-present din of electricity and water rushing barely perceptible under your feet and through the ceiling. You feel wired and overwhelmed. Your blood pressure starts to rise. An uncomfortable flush creeps up your neck and cheeks. Maybe you squeeze your eyes shut a few times. Or start fidgeting with your hands. You have the urge to crawl into a dark corner and cover your head in quiet darkness.
For most people, everyday situations don’t generally provide such overstimulation; they can navigate busy shopping centers or rock concerts with only mild irritation at times. But for many of us with CFS, enduring such activities requires superhuman strength because we are ultra sensitive to our environments. Noise seems to clock in at number one for the most grating stimulus, but for some it may be smell or light or even touch. The world we live in can be violently invasive at times with the millions of individual sounds that all seem to get mixed up and jumbled by our brains. It’s enough to drive some people into a panic attack…
I’ve had a panic attack in a crowded grocery store. I’ve had a panic attack in the middle of rush hour traffic. I’ve even had one in the shower. The stimuli may have all been a little different, but regardless they were enough to tip my fragile nervous system over the edge. Even when I am feeling relatively good, the slightest sudden noise can be startling, prompting what some people think is a gross overreaction. If someone would drop something on the floor, I would get exasperated, and feel the painful vibration in my ears for several minutes afterwards. The sound of the vacuum cleaner was enough to bring on the dreaded brain fog-headache combo. Or there would be nights that I couldn’t sleep because I could hear some ridiculous high frequency buzzing that seemed to just echo in my skull and enrage me.
Many people claim to have this kind of ultrasensitive hearing, but there is a high proportion of us with CFS and fibromyalgia who feel like we’re all wearing hearing aids turned up to full blast. And it sure isn’t fun! Sometimes the anticipation of the sheer environmental noise is enough to keep me from accepting an invitation to go out, and I know I’m not alone. Most of us find calm in the controlled quiet of our rooms or apartments, and hesitate to go out into the onslaught.
But being a shut-in isn’t healthy either, so it’s nice to have a few tools in your toolbox when attempting to go out and be a normal human being. Here are just a few I’ve come up with:
1. Remove yourself
You may be thinking this is kind of a no-brainer, but it’s worth mentioning. There’s nothing as powerful in overcoming your overstimulation than getting the heck out of the situation that provides it. A lot of times the clamor is enough to put me into a temporary paralysis, and my brain seems incapable of coming to even just this simple conclusion. But just know that in 95% of cases, you have the choice and the power to leave that hellish place!
There is NO shame in not wanting to put yourself through such a trying experience.
Don’t let your friends or family pressure you into doing something that you know will be murder on your poor ears. Remember that you are simply more sensitive right now because your body is desperately trying to heal- try to be grateful and honor your internal signals.
2. Bring your headphones
I know I’m not the only one that feels a little self conscious about wearing headphones in public- like I’m afraid of being thought of as rude or selfish or antisocial…but honestly, I don’t think people care as much as we may think they do. So whip out those earbuds and stick ‘em in!
If you’ve got the cash to drop on those fancy noise-canceling ones, go for it- apparently they work wonders. But any old headphones will help to soften the din and provide a nice buffer between you and the world of loud. You can use them to simply turn down the volume, or you can use them to listen to your own preferred sounds.
For me, I always keep a selection of “calming music” on my phone just in case. Everything from chill downtempo to kirtan music to nature sounds can help me reign in the crazy brain and prevent a short circuit. It’s saved my hide on more than one city bus commute and holiday shopping trip.
3. Go with a buddy
This is an awesome one, but one I haven’t had as many chances to try out. So if you’re lucky enough to have a few friends who share some of your sensitivities or limitations, it can be incredibly comforting to brave the world together.
First off, they won’t ask you to push your limits. Because they get it. They won’t be mad if you say you need to leave. They won’t complain if you need to duck into a quiet bathroom or dressing room for a breather. They will respect your space and not make you feel ashamed. These people are worth their weight in gold any day of the week, and I’d rather tackle an emergency grocery run with any of them than going it alone.
Sometimes it may also be helpful to have a person tag along who doesn’t necessarily have your sensitivity, but is sympathetic and understanding of it. When you’re in the fishbowl of brain fog, or have a tendency to freeze up in stressful situations, it can be a lifesaver to have someone there to help keep you focused, or help you find an exit strategy if needed.
4. Pack an emergency kit
Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail,” and while this may come off a bit harsh to come, I’ve found that preparation is key to managing daily life with CFS. Taking a few minutes to put together a little emergency calming kit is often worth ten times that. Especially if you are prone to panic attacks.
Not only does it help you feel reassured when heading into the noisy world, it can come in handy when you need a break or find yourself confronted with an unexpected happening. There are definitely times I didn’t think I would need it, but ended up sending up prayers of gratitude when things changed in a flash.
The doctor’s waiting room suddenly gets slammed. Your flight gets cancelled. Your concert seats were changed. There’s new construction right outside your classroom. The levels of noise you may have anticipated don’t always stay true. So make yourself a little kit to ground yourself and quiet down. You can even put it in a pretty little case or bag if that helps you bring it along more readily. Here’s some suggestions on what to include:
· Fresh water (no caffeinated beverages!)
· A healthy snack, preferably foods that are naturally calming like walnuts, almonds, dark chocolate, seaweed, berries, or chia seeds
· Relaxing essential oil blend- look for one with lavender, vetiver, roman chamomile, sandalwood, frankincense, or clary sage
· Natural remedy like Rescue Remedy or Bach’s flower essences
· Headphones (see #2!)
· An anti-anxiety stone like blue lace agate, lepidolite, or rose quartz
5. Respect your limits
This is a crucial one for especially anyone living with a chronic illness, whether you have noise sensitivity or not. If you’re feeling especially wobbly, maybe it isn’t the best time to tackle the grocery list or grab drinks with friends. If you only slept three hours last night, you may not be able to handle a full day of holiday shopping. If your ears are already buzzing at breakfast, that dinner party may not be the way to honor yourself.
I’ve given myself more than one flare-up by forcing myself to “stick to the schedule” or being too afraid to ask for a rain check when I really needed one. The pressure to maintain relationships or simply keep fresh food in the house can be tough to ignore, but sometimes that may be just what your body is begging you to do. And if you just can’t bring yourself to skip out on another girls’ day, make sure you bring along your emergency calming kit and communicate your needs respectfully to your friends.
Constantly throwing yourself into the onslaught of noise and activity isn’t going to help you get better- your nervous system won’t be able to get the down time it needs to mend.
So go easy on yourself- you’re doing the best you can. Over time, you may even come to discover the richness that a quiet life can provide.
What about you dear friend? Do you seem to be frazzled by sounds and noise? What have you found that helps you cope?
~ Hoping you feel as well as possible ~