On the outside, I am a very chill person. But on the inside, I’m a high-strung mess, always two seconds from thinking I’m going to have a breakdown. Why? Because my nerves are shot from all the damn loud sounds that come with being a parent. This isn’t just a petty complaint; the constant volume, shrieks, and sudden jolts caused by objects (or bodies) hitting the floor mean constant sensory overload; I often feel like I need to breathe into a paper bag. It is a constant struggle for me to figure out how to keep it together in the midst of all that overwhelming sound.
My house is small, and in it, there are five of us competing for space and constantly talking over one another. We are a lively, tight-knit family, but sometimes the cacophony of daily life with three small kids makes me feel so shaken and raw that I have to quickly escape to the backyard and muffle my face with my jacket so I can scream. And I feel so much guilt about this, because my kids are funny and sweet and I adore being their mom. Then add in some more guilt, every time I yell at them. For a long time, I thought my yelling meant I was just a terrible parent, but I’ve learned that I was reacting (not responding) to too much sound.
Of course, my household is not loud every waking second of the day. But it’s also never silent either because even when there is relative quiet, my kids never stop talking to me – or at me – and the brain energy it takes me to stay “on” and provide responses drains me of patience and kindness.
The pandemic and its increased at-home time have probably exacerbated this. It’s helped to realize that I am a highly sensitive person, which isn’t a disorder or a mental illness, but rather a personality trait that makes a person more sensitive to external stimulation. It can leave you feeling pretty frazzled and drained.
Do all parents feel physically attacked by sounds coming from all directions? In my own skin, loudness feels like confusion and edginess. Every time my kids drop a toy on the hardwood floor or have a verbal outburst, my insides jolt and jump, which ratchets up my anxiety another notch. For a long time, I soothed my nerves by drinking wine, but for obvious reasons that’s not sustainable. So with the help of my husband, I’ve been working on finding strategies to help me deal with what feels like a constant assault of sound. Here are some of the things I’ve tried so far.
- I bought earbuds. During my peak anxious times of the day – like immediately after school when my kids are bouncing off the walls, and later while making dinner and the kids are at each other’s throats – I pop them in and it helps provide a “wall” between me and whatever is going on in the house. Often I don’t even listen to anything, because silence — or as near to silence as I can get — is a better balm for my frazzled mind. I can still hear everything happening around me, but having a small buffer has been tremendously helpful and makes me calmer. If the house is too noisy, I play soothing music through my earbuds to tune everyone out completely.
- I freeze myself. OK, this might sound odd, but hear me out because I swear it actually works. In acute moments of anxiety, I dunk my whole face in a sink of ice-cold water, and I hold it there for ten seconds. Supposedly, the extremely cold water triggers a chain reaction in the nervous system that has a lovely ability to calm anxiety. And while I can’t do this trick every time I feel sound-induced panic coming on, this tool really helps.
- Peppermint oil. I keep a stick of it in my pocket and take a whiff of it when I feel frazzled. The scent of peppermint is thought to calm stress; I like this one from Up Nature with its roll-on application.
- We designated a household Quiet Time. My kids have a scheduled time at the end of each day when they aren’t allowed to be loud inside. The family rule is that once dinner is over, the kids can be loud outside or choose a quiet activity inside. Typically, they read, take baths, or pop on their headphones and play a quick video game. I get some relief from the noise and they get a chance to wind down as we enter the evening, which makes rolling into bedtime surprisingly easy and smooth.
- I ask for help from my partner. Probably the most significant way I’m dealing with this has been asking my husband to step in when I need to get a few minutes of distance to calm my brain down. For many years, I saw asking for help as a sign of weakness. It felt like admitting that I couldn’t handle being a mom. I also never wanted to let on just how debilitating my anxiety could feel in certain moments. But my husband has never once seen my vulnerability as weakness and has instead stepped up to help me. Now, we have what passes as a code. When I say, “I have so much writing to do” he tries to take the kids on little adventures around town. I don’t always have writing, of course, but when I say those magical words, he understands that the thing I need most is quiet. His help without judgment or question has been a game-changer for my ability to stay calm and be the even-keeled parent I want to be. Most of the time, anyway.