Quiet the Riot: Blocking Out ADHD Distractions

My struggle with ADHD-unfriendly background noise, and how I recaptured my concentration once and for all.

Adult with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) must work hard to drown out distractions at work

The gentle strikes of No. 2 pencils hammered my ADHD brain like blows in a steel foundry.

Douglas Cootey, author of The Splintered Mind blog

One aspect of attention deficit disorder (ADHD) that drives me bonkers is my inability to shut out background noise.

A better way to describe it would be to say that foreground and background noise tend to switch places within my addled brain. This is one reason I despised taking exams at the testing center at Brigham Young University during my years there.

On my way to the exam room, I had to pass through metal detectors and submit to a deep-body cavity search. My pockets were emptied by unnaturally tall athletes lifting me heavenward by the ankles while shaking me roughly. It was assumed the accoutrements of cheating and deception would fall to the ground. The only thing that fell out was loose change.

Aural Assaults

After surviving the gauntlet of hands, and having my backpack x-rayed for radio devices, I was allowed into the testing area with only a No. 2 pencil — and what was left of my dignity. I began my test and soon experienced a new assault — silence so heavy I could feel its weight on my shoulders, bearing down on me.

When my mind grew accustomed to the quiet, the real fun began. The room filled with sniffles and coughs, like bird calls in an aviary. The sniffles evolved into snuffles, which were eventually replaced by pencil tapping. Seemingly harmless to those with normal brains, the gentle strikes of No. 2 pencils hammered my ADHD brain like blows in a steel foundry. What I would have given for a trusty Walkman back then, with a fresh set of batteries and some favorite tunes, to neuter the noise.

Sounds of Silence

I face aural intrusions these days when I try to fall asleep. My insomnia often has me ending the day when others begin it. The happy bustle of the world awaking to new purpose makes falling asleep nearly impossible.

Fortunately, I have discovered a way to close out the din: white noise. With the sounds of tropical Hawaiian rain or music from Pzizz (a software application that generates random sound tracks guaranteed to shuttle me off to dreamland), I can quiet the morning commotion and drift off to rest.

Of course, my white noise isn’t the official variety. Most people think that white noise sounds like a television that has lost its on-air signal. Regardless of where it comes from, white noise can be relaxing to those who have ADHD, especially if there is subtle variety in its tones. Although there are many machines dedicated to generating white noise, most — with their short, repeating loops — are overpriced and unsatisfying. I have discovered inexpensive alternatives, though, through years of trial and error. In particular, two relaxing CDs — Midnight Rainshower and Tropical Surf (both from the "A Week in Hawaii" series; Rykodisc) — are a snooze to me, in the best sense of the word.

White Noise for Free

Lately, I turn down the volume at home by logging on to SimplyNoise.com.

The site is cleanly designed, and you don’t need a degree in sound engineering to use it. Choose your flavor of noise (white, pink, or brown and red), slide the volume control to the desired output, and enjoy. I find that enabling the oscillating volume adds variety to the sound that is both pleasant and non-distracting. If you have trouble shutting out the world when you need to study, write, paint, spark creativity, sleep, or get down to business at work, this free service is perfect for your needs.

Regrettably, I didn’t have white noise in my arsenal when taking those college exams, eons ago, to the rhythms of pencil percussionists, noisy noses, and sonorous silence. If I had, who knows? I may have actually passed a class or two.

This piece is excerpted fron Douglas Cootey's blog, The Splintered Mind.

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