Are you a highly sensitive person looking for ways to endure loud noises? In this article, guest writer Daniela Silva shares her experience with systematic desensitization.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

For Highly Sensitive People, who due to sensory processing sensitivity, feel the world around them with depth and intensity, perceiving with more vividness the subtleties and details of the environment, footsteps on the ceiling can feel like intermittent pricks in the ears.

This was the situation I experienced with my husband, where after a year and a half of living in an apartment without residents on the top floor, I spent weeks of agony with the moving of new neighbors.

I just couldn’t stay in my living room anymore. There were endless sounds of footsteps coming from the ceiling, which mingled with the sound of dogs’ claws playing on the floorboards.

Crying, irritation, and tears gave way to obsessive behaviors of counting how many steps formed on top of me. I thought I was going to go crazy.

With all the emotional wear and tear, the building manager talked to the residents on the top floor, who, understanding, agreed to collaborate by minimizing the noise.

The noises lessened but did not cease. And since the acoustics in the apartment are very bad, I still hear noises.

The curious thing is that we moved to our current apartment to get away from the noise. And to our surprise, lo and behold, the shuddering noises returned to keep us company. But this time, I got the help that surpassed my expectations called “Systematic Desensitization“.

In this article, I’ll share my experience with systematic desensitization as a highly sensitive person.

Dealing with my Anxiety with Systematic Desensitization

Systematic desensitization is a treatment strategy within Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that consists of making less sensitive, negative responses to anxieties and phobias.

In practice, it consists of gradually exposing a person to a stressful or traumatic situation in a balanced and calm way.

For this reason, at the time the person is exposed, relaxation techniques are performed in order to reduce discomfort, replacing anxious responses with relaxation responses.

The goal is to unlearn negative responses-to a stressful situation and transform the experience.

Below, I will list step by step how systematic desensitization has proven effective for me:

In the Therapy Session

I’ve been doing behavioral therapy for some time in an attempt to learn how to better manage my emotions, and I told my psychologist about my discomfort with the noises from the ceiling caused by the new neighbors.

She asked me to list my discomfort with those noise from 1 to 10. Being 10 intense feelings of anger, and 1 for feelings with lesser intensity.

At the beginning of our process, I listed discomfort with noise at an intense sensitivity level of 11, which led me to develop the elusive behavior of staying in the living room.

This avoidant behavior was hurting not only me but my husband as well. The moment we used to spend together at the end of the day talking in the living room had been replaced by my absence, as I preferred to remain in the home office. 

It is a fact that during the day at the home office, I also hear a lot of noises from my window, like the sounds of cars, motorcycles, people talking, construction work, and dogs.

However, at nightfall, the sounds of noises in the ceiling create a stark contrast with the silence of the night. So the strategy used was to gradually expose myself to the sounds and noises from the ceiling, using relaxation techniques to manage the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that arise.

Relaxation Techniques

From 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., my muscles were already stiff, and my head was as heavy as the noises coming from the ceiling.

My body had already become conditioned to go into a state of tension due to my hypervigilance to the noises.

So, after 5 p.m., I would start a series of relaxation exercises, such as mindfulness, stretching, and breathing exercises, before entering my living room. The exercises lasted as long as it was necessary for me to feel completely relaxed and at ease.

However, I want to highlight Jacobson’s progressive relaxation, which consists of tightening a muscle group, keeping the rest of the body relaxed, and then releasing the tension.

The practice is combined with breathing exercises and works all muscle groups from head to toe. Dr. Edmund Jacobson invented the technique in the 1920s as a way to help his patients deal with anxiety.

Dr. Jacobson felt that relaxing the muscles could relax the mind as well. So, feeling more relaxed, it was time to go back to “frequenting” my living room amid the noise.

Desensitizing the Noise

Before gradually exposing myself to living room noises at night, my therapist and I worked on the beliefs and memories behind my tension and anxiety about the sounds.

With my eyes closed and inhaling and exhaling five times, I was led to recall memories related to noisy situations that marked me. So, during the sessions, I would remember the times when I was a kid and I couldn’t make noise in the neighborhood where I lived.

My house was on land with two other houses; my family and I lived in the last house rented, and the landlord lived in the first house. The landlord was an elderly couple who, whenever they saw me, made faces and signaled with their fingers for me not to make noise on the floor, whether running, walking hard, or playing.

I remember playing with dolls and with imaginary friends in my backyard because I wasn’t allowed to run all over the place. Can you imagine a child being forbidden to make noise or run? I don´t.

In this way, I understood that the noise of footsteps on the ceiling reminded me of my footsteps on the floor of the land, where I was forbidden to step, jump, or play. That’s why they bothered me so much, to the point of wanting to control them the same way my steps were controlled in childhood.

After discovering the cause of my annoyance with the noises, it was time to devise ways to make them not bother me so much.

So, little by little, I returned to my living room during the period of noise, but this time, taking the focus away from them and placing it on pleasant things to do, such as watching TV programs that aroused my attention.

The process started with 10 minutes, building up (from 10 out of 10) until I was able to remain in the room focused on pleasurable activities as my focus on noise lessened each week. Whenever necessary, I did relaxation practices in the living room while watching TV or before entering the environment when feeling tense.

Like every moving process, the beginning was very difficult because, with each noise, my mind focused on the ceiling. However, just like mindfulness practices, I would focus on my breathing while watching TV and gradually relax my muscles on the couch.

The noises, once deafening, are now just sparks from falling objects, bad building acoustics, or a child playing with his dog. They are passing sounds, and they don’t last all day.

This change in thinking and behavior improved my self-esteem, confidence, and motivation to spend pleasant moments at home.

Some Final Remarks

Systematic Desensitization is a form of exposure therapy that has helped me discover the causes behind my tension, anxiety, and desire to control the nocturnal noises in my living room ceiling. With the relaxation techniques and gradual exposure, I was able to generate new emotional responses to a problem that had been troubling me for weeks.


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