Screeching Voices

This article is different from most of the topics explored in this blog.  It’s about my subjective experience while hearing the sounds of life and the voices in my head.

A couple of definitions for the purposes of this article.

  • “Sounds of life” refers to how the outside world is heard within my mind (or brain), rather than the sound waves  that would be recorded on an audio track through a microphone.
  • “Voices in my head” could refer to (a) the normal inner dialogue we all experience, along with (b) the unwelcome or unexpected thoughts that pop up (sometimes obsessively) and (c) the perceived sound of the voices of others. In this post, the last definition (c) applies.

Probably none of us can know with certainty how others experience hearing, since the geometry of the bones in the ear, physical qualities of the eardrum and neurological processing within the brain can all affect our perception of external sounds. Yet we can describe our inner experiences to others in the form of analogies that can convey some of the subjective aspects. So even though the sounds of life might be unique to each person, we can still subjectively describe a shared objective event to one another.

Let me start with a situation (objective event) that happens often – trying to carry on a conversation in locations with lots of background noises. For (subjective) context, social situations typically evoke some degree of anxiety for me, even when the group consists of people I know and trust. One contributing factor is probably the generalized and social anxieties that I feel almost constantly. But other aspects might to be due to other causes, such as a neurological condition in the wiring of my brain. I would like to pose a question to readers to get some feedback about how common this experience might be for others.

So, here is the setup for the question.

I usually try to avoid having conversations in noisy places, such as restaurants, social events, and church fellowship areas because it is extremely difficult to hear and focus on the person engaging me in conversation. This could be due to the loudness or decibel level of all those competing sounds from conversations of others in the area. It becomes very hard for me to filter out these other voices and sounds as separate from the voice of the person I am speaking with. Then again, because I am slightly deaf, sounds become muddled and muted anyway, which does not help the situation.

Here is the part that seems weird. When speaking with someone in the situation described, the sound of their voice seems very abnormal compared to a quiet environment. I hear the voice of the person as a very irritating and grating shrill screech that is almost physically painful, like fingernails scratching a chalkboard. On the inside of my head, it feels like my brain hurts and I want to reach inside my skull and hold my brain so it does not explode. Or maybe squeeze my head until my brain is crushed to stop the overwhelming itch in my mind that I cannot scratch. The result of this sensation is a very strong impulse to run away and hide in a quiet place to stop the discomfort. If there is not a natural break in the conversation to allow a graceful exit, I excuse myself to use the restroom or get a drink of water, then find a quiet refuge for several minutes.

Another similar experience happened often while working in factories that had machines and tools used in manufacturing that made a fair amount of noise. When walking from the relative quiet of the office out to the shop floor, there would be a sudden sense of being attacked by all the sounds which was very uncomfortable. Over time it was less distressing, but still discouraged me from going into the factory any more than necessary.

Watching other people, they do not seem to experience this level of discomfort, or are better than me in hiding it. If everyone does experience this and puts on a nice face to hide it, kudos to you all. Please let me know how you deal with the internal discomfort in these situations!

[Update 10/28/2016] I intended to publish this post many months ago when initially written, but came across some new information that might help explain this experienced phenomena. I wanted to assess whether these possible causes might be applicable in my case before posting this article.

Probably one factor is the progressive deafness (especially in certain ranges of frequencies) that causes my brain to work overtime (and become overloaded quickly) in the region that processes auditory input. A sense that sounds become muddled or jumbled and hard to sort out or process properly is one sign of increasing deafness, according to information I’ve read.

Another possible factor (which also contributes to situational social anxiety) is hypervigilance arising from unresolved trauma events from earlier in life. When living in a stressful environment for a long period, the brain becomes conditioned to immediately evoke a flight or fight response (from reptilian brain area) from any perceived threat. Even when there is no real threat in the environment, the brain is not able to turn off this sense of imminent danger. Thus there is a subconscious hypersensitivity to all environmental stimuli in a new or unstructured situation while the brain is scanning for potential unanticipated threats. Interacting with others outside the perceived zone of safety (which might be at home where external stimulation can be controlled consciously) is one example of such an unstructured environment that can feel stressful.

A third possibility is that the subjective experiences of auditory discomfort are due to the side effects of medications prescribed for mood and anxiety issues. Since I stopped taking these medications, it seems the sense of feeling overwhelmed around groups of people (even strangers) has lessened. I’m now taking a different medication for mood disorders, which will hopefully bring improvement. But, I also stopped attending the church where these uncomfortable feeling often happened, so will see if a change in environment might reduce stress and anxiety.

Even though these factors are helpful to understand potential root causes for my subjective experience, the question remains – do others experience life events in a similar way? Thanks for any comments, especially related personal experiences.



About Hoosedwhut

Engineer - by education, training, and career experience. Philosopher - by inclination and choice. Amateur psychologist - by instinct and necessity. Amateur theologian - by birth into two distinct worlds...
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