ADHD Symptom Spotlight: Sound Sensitivity

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ADHD Symptom Spotlight is a series that dives deep into a hallmark or overlooked symptom of ADHD each week. This series is written by experts who also share their tips on managing these symptoms based on firsthand experience and research-backed insights.

Sound sensitivity is one of many sensory issues that can affect a person whose ADHD brain struggles to filter out irrelevant sensory input to focus only on the details and information that matter.

While not all people with ADHD have sound sensitivity and not all with sound sensitivity have ADHD, the sensory issue is often comorbid (ADHD doesn't cause sound sensitivity, but they are comorbid due to other conditions such as autism or misophonia). People with ADHD can experience distress due to sound when it is overwhelming and causes an inability to focus, often leading to increased distress and anxiety. When a person has both sound sensitivity and ADHD, each condition can be even harder to deal with.

If any of those sounds also trigger physical or emotional pain, it can be even harder to tune them out and focus your attention on the task at hand.

The Different Kinds of Sound Sensitivity

Dealing with sound sensitivity is frustrating because the specific sounds that trigger you are almost always ordinary and harmless: people breathing, keyboard tapping, windshield wipers in motion, idling car engines, the hum of appliances.

It can manifest in three main ways: hyperacusis, misophonia, and hypersensitivity. You might struggle with just one or a combination of two or three.

In the case of hyperacusis, these innocuous sounds can cause physical pain in the ears, with the intensity of that pain increasing in step with the volume of the sound. In the case of misophonia, the triggering sound unleashes an intense, even violent emotional reaction that you know is entirely uncalled for.

With general hypersensitivity, you’re not necessarily in pain but are overly aware of and easily distracted by every little sound in your environment. Noises that people without ADHD or sensory issues tend not to notice unless you explicitly call to their attention.

How Sound Sensitivity Affects Me

For me, the problem is hypersensitivity and misophonia. I’m keenly aware of the quiet hum of my computer, the cars on the street outside, the random creaking sounds of the house, and the clock ticking in a bedroom upstairs. These sounds don’t bother me, but they crowd my thought process, making it difficult to hone in on my work.

Meanwhile, what triggers my misophonia are sounds that I’ve classified as “wet mouth sounds”: a person chewing moist food or slurping liquid, a dog licking itself, or lapping up water from a bowl. These couldn’t be more harmless or ordinary, but I feel like I want to peel my skin off or stab an ice pick into my eardrums whenever I hear them.

But because of how ordinary they are, I know how irrational it would be to force a person to stop eating or take away a dog’s water bowl. Trying to suffer through it, though, is a monumental task. It becomes almost impossible to hear what someone is saying to me if they’re talking to me while eating, making the standard date activity of getting dinner together a no-go.

How to Manage Sound Sensitivity

Your best options will depend on whether you’re dealing with hypersensitivity, misophonia, or hyperacusis. Below are a few suggestions that can help with either one or more of those conditions.

Put on Music or TV to Drown Out Triggering Sounds

Volume isn’t really an issue for misophonia, so one way to handle a triggering sound is to cover it with something that doesn’t bother you.

Watch TV (and crank up the volume) during meals to mask the sounds of chewing and swallowing. Put on music in the car to drown out the sound of the car engine. Put on headphones to listen to music or a podcast while vacuuming or mopping.

Invest in a Good Pair of Noise-Canceling Headphones

Since so many of the sounds that trigger sound sensitivity are frustratingly commonplace, one of the best ways to get through daily life is to keep a pair of noise-canceling headphones with you at all times.

Telling your coworkers to leave the office when eating lunch might not be a reasonable accommodation for your disability, but listening to music on your headphones while working to shut out the sound should be.

For people with hyperacusis, wearing noise-canceling headphones (without music playing) is a good way to dampen external noises enough that they don’t feel painfully loud while still being able to hear people talking to you.

I often wear them while working because they not only tune out triggering sounds but quiet the other random environmental noises that can easily pull my attention away from work. It’s like manually installing a filter to compensate for my brain’s inability to filter out sensory input.

Wear a Hearing Aid

If noise-canceling headphones at work aren’t an option, you could also try hearing aids. Many designs can be selectively programmed to filter out background noises without blocking all sound.

This can greatly help people with hypersensitivity, hyperacusis, or other auditory processing disorders that make it difficult to selectively block out certain sounds while focusing on others—like listening to your friend’s story while blocking out clinking glasses and background chatter at the bar.

Find the Right Music for Working or Studying

Since pleasant sounds can help mask unpleasant or distracting sounds, listening to music when you need to focus can be a helpful strategy. Using music to help the brain stay on task has been shown to be especially helpful for people with ADHD.

With that said, the ADHD brain is a master at distracting itself and some music can end up causing more of a distraction than the background noises it’s masking—especially if it’s that one song that you can’t help but sing along to and play air guitar whenever it comes on.  

The “right” music is definitely a highly subjective classification: what helps you focus might drive someone else up the wall. Those three-hour binaural beat recordings that have been shown to help some people with ADHD focus just feel like a refrigerator humming amplified for me, for example.

Instead, I opt for Gregorian chants or medieval hymns. It’s super esoteric, I know, but it has a meditative quality to it that I imagine binaural beats are supposed to have. And since the vocals are typically in Latin (which I can’t speak), I’m able to hear it without really listening to it and it effectively masks other environmental sounds that distract or distress me.

For you, it might be classical music, rock ballads, or EDM. Experiment with different genres and types of music to find something that makes you feel calm, collected, and focused—even if it’s not necessarily what you would put on to dance or actively listen to.

Honor Your Sound Sensitivity

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, step outside or put some distance between you and the triggering sound. With misophonia, the sound can push you dangerously close to blowing up at a person you love who is, quite honestly, not actually doing anything intentionally hurtful.

Instead of screaming at your loved one for eating dinner, go outside for a walk or find a different room to finish your meal in. Come back when the meal is over. It may not be reasonable to blow up at people doing a harmless daily activity like eating or breathing, but it is reasonable to remove yourself from the situation temporarily to allow yourself to calm down. Once your emotions have settled, you can put in some ear plugs or wear some noise-canceling headphones and return to the situation.

For hyperacusis, find quieter alternatives for daily necessities. Drive the extra couple miles to the smaller, less crowded grocery store instead of doing your shopping at the bigger store that tends to overwhelm you. Find quieter bars or venues that offer outdoor seating where you can get away from the music and crowds, but still have a fun night out with your friends.

You can’t avoid every triggering sound or situation, but making accommodations where you can and giving yourself the space to experience your emotions without reacting to them will make it easier for you to fight through the situations you can’t avoid. 

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