Light and noise sensitivity in fibromyalgia (FMS) and chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) have been scientifically established since the early 1990s, but they’re still underrecognized and rarely make symptoms lists. Rest assured that you’re not alone in experiencing this symptom!
When I used to take my kids to daycare, some mornings the noise would hit me like a brick wall. In an instant, I’d have pain, nausea, dizziness, trembling, and a looming panic attack.
More than once, I had to call in sick as a result of it. I’ve had similar experiences with bright or flashing lights, or with visual chaos in general.
We don’t know the causes of light and noise sensitivity, but they’re often called “generalized hypervigilance.” That means our bodies are constantly on high alert. It’s also a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Hypervigilance is beneficial for people in potentially dangerous situations, such as soldiers or police officers, because it speeds up to several processes and helps with crisis response.
In FMS and ME/CFS, however, hypervigilance overwhelms us. We don’t know why, but possibilities include:
- Nervous system abnormalities
- Stress-system (HPA axis) problems
- Neurotransmitter dysregulation
- Blood pressure irregularities
Symptoms of Generalized Hypervigilance
Common symptoms of hypervigilance include:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Rapid or labored breathing
- Sleep disturbances
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So far, we don’t have research showing that specific treatments alleviate light and noise sensitivity in FMS and ME/CFS.
In people with PTSD, treatment for the anxiety related to generalized hypervigilance can include mental-health counseling and medications, especially antidepressants.
Supplements for anxiety and stress may help you cope better with light and noise sensitivity as well. Some people also benefit from treatments such as massage or acupuncture.
Light and noise sensitivity can have a huge impact on your life. You may avoid certain situations and even fear them, which increases anxiety. It can also contribute to social isolation, which is common in people with FMS or ME/CFS and can worsen depression.
Some work environments are difficult to endure. I used to be a television news producer, which meant sitting under a lighting grid in a room with dozens of TVs and ringing phones. I went from thriving in the chaos to having regular anxiety attacks. I decided to leave the job. Other people may be able to get reasonable accommodation to lessen the impact of this symptom.
You might be able to eliminate or avoid many sources of excess noise and light, but you probably can’t eliminate all of them. Several simple things can help you deal with light and noise sensitivity in your daily life:
- Sunglasses are a must outside.
- If fluorescent lights bother you, lightly tinted sunglasses or a hat with a brim may help.
- In a noisy environment, earplugs or listening to music on headphones may help some people.
- Deep breathing and other relaxation techniques can help you get through episodes of sensory overload due to light and noise.
- Teach your family and friends about the impact that light and noise have on you so they understand your requests to turn off lights or turn down the volume.
- If your computer screen bothers you, try adjusting the brightness and contrast.
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It also helps to be aware of what situations may bother you and be prepared — mentally and with supplements and/or medications.
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