Do Insomnia and Noise Sensitivity Go Hand in Hand?

Is there an association between noise sensitivity and insomnia? I think there might be, and the interviews I conducted for my book reinforced the idea. Apartment dwellers and city people often complained that noise at night—whether from inside or outside their buildings—made their insomnia worse.

Here’s some research showing that people with insomnia have a harder time with noise than others.

Noise sensitivity and insomnia may go hand in hand

Noise sensitivity and insomnia may go hand in handThis week I came across the results of a survey on traffic noise and its effects on people’s lives. The subjects were 2,612 residents of a small Swedish city whose homes were exposed to air, rail, and/or road traffic noise around the clock.

Overall, people whose bedroom windows faced a yard, garden, water, or green space reported having better sleep and concentration, and less annoyance at the noise, than people without a view of green space.

No way! I said to myself. Noise is noise. I don’t care if my bedroom window faces a Zen garden: if my Mack’s earplugs can’t block out the noise entirely, my sleep is toast. I’m no more tolerant of noise during the day, lumping leaf blowers, dirt bikes, and ATVs in the same category: obnoxious. There’s got to be something wrong with this survey.

Then I read further.

Compared with people who said they were not sensitive to noise, people who reported being very and extremely noise sensitive were 9 times more bothered by the traffic noise in their neighborhoods. It didn’t matter whether they had a window facing green space or not.

Noise Sensitivity and Insomnia

“Extremely noise sensitive” describes me to a T. And noise sensitivity is a liability when you’re prone to insomnia. If a conversation in the next room doesn’t keep you awake, clanking pipes surprise you just at the moment you’re ready to drift off. The water softener wakes you up when it comes on at 3. A diesel engine running outside your window can awaken you from the dead.

Is there an association between noise sensitivity and insomnia? I think there might be. As I was conducting interviews for my book, apartment dwellers and city people often complained that noise at night—whether from inside or outside their buildings—made their insomnia worse.

Anxiety and Vigilance

A cognitive model of insomnia suggests that the heightened sensitivity to noise that some insomniacs experience at night is in large part learned. People with chronic insomnia are often anxious about sleep. In turn, we become hyper-focused on everything we perceive as threatening to our sleep, whether internal, such as a jittery feeling, or external, like noise. Detection of noise or an irregular heartbeat jacks up our anxiety further, in turn making us more vigilant. We’re caught up in a vicious cycle of worry and vigilance that hinders our sleep ability.

As reasonable as this theory may sound, I’ve never been convinced that it explains my sensitivity to noise at night. I believe noise sensitivity is something I either inherited from my parents (musicians with keen ears) or developed early on as a result of their demand for absolute quiet at night.

More Than Learning May Be Involved

Some evidence suggests that the noise sensitivity associated with insomnia could be more like a stable trait. For instance, neuroimaging scans have detected wake-like activity in the brains of insomniacs even as we sleep. While we’re asleep, low-level information processing may be occurring in some areas of the brain. This would jibe with a susceptibility to being awakened by noise at night. It also calls into question the idea that noise sensitivity in insomniacs is wholly learned.

Studies involving evoked response potentials, or ERPs, show that people with insomnia may simply respond more forcefully to noise than normal sleepers. Our brains may register more excitement when auditory information goes in.

On the other hand, the sensitivity may have to do with how hard our brains are able to work to block noise out–something brains generally do in the sleep onset period and during sleep. As normal sleepers doze off, their brains have the ability readily to block out noise and disengage. Some ERP studies show that insomniacs’ brains have trouble inhibiting noise. Research also suggests that while good sleepers’ brains easily tune out repetitive noises such as the ticking of a clock, insomniacs “may have difficulties closing channels to non-pertinent stimulation.”

Whether noise sensitivity is learned or inborn, you want to do everything possible to minimize exposure to noise at night. A pair of earplugs is a good place to start.

What kinds of noise are you bothered by at night? How do you manage it?


Author: Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

4 thoughts on “Do Insomnia and Noise Sensitivity Go Hand in Hand?”

    1. Hi Emily,
      I have absolutely no opinion here as my knowledge of insomnia and noise sensitivity does not extend to the relationship they may or may not have with autistic spectrum disorders. But Pubmed online is my go-to source when I’m looking for information about any medical topic. Once there, I do a keyword search and can usually find something related to what I’m looking for. And if I can’t, it’s probably because there hasn’t been any research published on the topic.
      Good luck in your search for information.


  1. Hi Emily and Lois,

    I have just come across your blog and comments. I am the CEO of an Australian based charity facilitating research into what sound including low frequency noise is doing to people and a key complaint is that of sleep disturbance and chronic sleep deprivation. One of the particular risk groups are people with autism.

    Our collaborative field work with acousticians and people who have become sensitised to noise from a range of industrial sources including CSG equipment, coal, gas and wind power generators, and a range of industrial fans and compressors is showing that they acquire an enhanced startle reflex response to sound with various characteristics, including impulsivity / pulsing, with ongoing exposure. This response can occur with amplitude modulated sound, including audible sound as well as sound that can be inaudible or just at the threshold of hearing, and across a range of frequencies.

    People assume that because the sound is inaudible that it is infrasound – however accurate full spectrum sound recordings taken inside their homes at the time shows that the sound is amplitude and frequency modulating across a range of frequencies, that is pulsing at an “infrasound rate” eg 1 – 2 Hz. If this exposure occurs at night, when they are asleep, it can wake them up (sometimes repeatedly many times a night) in a characteristic anxious frightened panicked state.

    Our collaborative presentation with Steven Cooper and Bob Thorne in December 2017 (on our website) at an ASA conference in New Orleans lists some of the relevant medical research and also includes reference to research demonstrating that children with autism have an enhance acoustic startle reflex. You are welcome to contact me at if you would like further information & links to the relevant research.


    Sarah Laurie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Sarah, for taking time to share this information about the relationship between noise sensitivity and autism. Your research sounds fascinating and may well be of interest to readers of this blog. If you’d like to leave links to that research (other than your email address) in this comment section, please feel free to do that.

      Liked by 1 person

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