Hypersensitivity and anxiety
Not only does being hypersensitive make us more prone to anxiety. It also works the other way around. Hypersensitivity to auditory stimuli can originate from an irrational fear. When we struggle with anxiety we tend to develop an overall sensitivity to sensory stimuli (smell, sight, …). Fluctuations in our emotional state (e.g. anxiety) make our body more vigilant. They put our nervous system on high alert (fight or flight response).
The processing of auditory data often takes place through the limbic system. A part of the brain that is, among others, involved in emotion, memory and learning. It is suggested that persons with anxiety have subconsciously put into action a mechanism that interferes with their hearing ‘selectivity’.
Hypersensitivity to auditory stimuli
A person with normal hearing is most perceptive to ‘ordinary’ sounds and filters away non functional everyday sounds (e.g. rattling cutlery, car engine,…). In a hearing test, persons with anxiety or hypersensitivity to sounds often show an abnormal hearing curve. Their auditory ‘filter’/’gating’ has changed. When unable to tolerate ordinary levels of noise, the uninterrupted hearing of auditory stimuli becomes a source of annoyance and irritation.
Sensory sensitivity and stimuli ‘overload’
Persons with very sensitive hearing and anxiety cannot tolerate day-to-day sounds anymore. This auditory sensitivity can take many forms, that rarely manifest themselves separately: hyperacusis (reduced tolerance to some environmental noises or tones), misophonia (hatred of sound), phonofobia (fear of sound), tinnitus (ringing in the ears).
Both the limbic system and the autonomous nervous system are involved in the process of (increased) noise sensitivity. The idea that hypersensitivity to auditory stimuli is often not due to damage in the inner ear can induce a fundamental change in our (traditional) thinking. For example: hyperacusis, more often than not, can be due to a modification in the neural efficiency of the central processing of sound. This means that most of the time the cochlea is completely normal. In that case professional training of our hearing in the right frequencies to recover our standard hearing ‘elasticity’ is recommended.
Tackling the ‘abnormal perceptual problem’
I wrote this article based on a conversation I had with Tomatis practitioner Peggy Boets. We discussed how listening therapy can benefit persons with anxiety and hypersensitivity to auditory stimuli.
The ear is a major channel for transmitting sensory messages. The Tomatis method, a non-invasive auditory training, is suggested to act on the regulation of stress and emotion by acting on the limbic system, to which the auditory system is linked. In that system, the cochlea (an organ in the middle ear) can be viewed as a ‘cortical charger’ that also acts on the prefrontal cortex. It uses specific sound frequencies, vibrations and patterns to stimulate regions in the brain and thereby (recover/reprogram or) improve neurophysiologic functions for integrating sensory input.