Chewing. Crunching. Pen-clicking. Coughing. Slurping. How do these noises make you feel? It’s loud breathing that gets me. The sound of it makes me apoplectic; I want to tear my hair out and clobber the culprit. That may sound dramatic, but if you have misophonia, however mild, you would understand.
Misophonia is a little-understood disorder that literally translates as “hatred of sound.” I’m not claiming to have a severe case of it, but a surprising number of people have symptoms: an irrational or emotional reaction to everyday sounds that others can ignore. It was previously considered to be a rare condition, but new research from King’s College London and Oxford University has found it affects one in five people.
In some, misophonia triggers a full-on fight-or-flight response and overwhelming feelings of anger, anxiety or disgust. It can even cause a physiological reaction, such as a raised heart rate, tense muscles or dizziness. When I polled Twitter for input, I received numerous impassioned replies.
One friend said: “My reaction to snoring is physical. It makes me feel ill. If I dated someone who snored, I would dump them.” Another: “Loud swallowing makes me want to punch someone. I have to leave the room.” Someone else said the noise of gulping a drink elicits a “yelp of horror.” The noise of crunching potato chips is enough to make another “beat (someone) to death with my shoe.” Chips appear to be a common trigger: one friend has stopped people she barely knows from licking their fingers after eating them as the noise, to her, is intolerable.
Other niche noises can trigger a tidal wave of rage: the sound of brushing teeth; the almost-imperceptible buzz of an electric light; the scrunch of aluminum foil; the tap of a keyboard.
An extreme reaction that includes anger, panic or feeling trapped and helpless.
Dr. Jane Gregory, clinical psychologist
Could all these people have misophonia? Or are we pathologizing a normal reaction to irritating sounds?
A new study published in the journal PLOS One is the first to assess the prevalence of misophonia in the general population. A representative group of 772 people were questioned on their reaction to common trigger sounds. While 18.4 per cent of people reported misophonia symptoms that caused them “significant burden,” only 13.6 per cent had heard of misophonia by name, suggesting people may not realize they have it.
“Misophonia is a decreased tolerance to specific sounds, but it’s more than just being annoyed or irritated, it’s an extreme reaction that includes anger, panic or feeling trapped and helpless,” says Dr. Jane Gregory, a clinical psychologist at the University of Oxford who suffers from the condition herself. “The nature of the reaction is different. From a clinical perspective, we’re looking at the impact that reaction has on someone’s life.”
Irritation at a colleague slurping soup or a partner snoring is one thing. Disgust at someone chewing with their mouth open is perfectly normal. This must be differentiated from severe cases of misophonia, which can make daily life miserable and ruin relationships; not being able to tolerate your partner’s breathing, for instance, tends to be a deal breaker.
Until recently, people have suffered in silence as the condition is so poorly understood. It wasn’t even given a name until 2001. It took years for medical professionals to start taking it seriously — research from Newcastle University in 2017 showed that when misophonia is triggered, you can see a visible difference in the frontal lobe of the brain. Before this, it was broadly dismissed.
Sufferers can end up avoiding social situations as, if you can’t stop the noise, you have to leave the room.
“I very rarely eat dinner at the table with my family. I feel so enraged by noises that it’s actually ridiculous,” says Vicky Borman, 44. She has felt this way since she was a child, but only learned there was a term for it eight years ago.
It has previously been conflated with mental health conditions such as anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), but while it does share some similarities, it’s distinct.
“It’s a very complex condition,” says Dr. Silia Vitoratou, lead author of the new study and a senior lecturer at King’s College London. “Some people’s brains are most likely wired differently … but early life experiences can also have something to do with the intensity of the emotional response.”
It’s thought that, in extreme cases, childhood trauma could be a trigger. Gregory believes it’s caused by an adaptive feature of the brain, where a person perceives threat in non-threatening noises that triggers anxiety and a fight-or-flight response.
It is also difficult to treat.
“There’s not enough evidence to be recommending any one particular treatment at the moment,” says Gregory. “There’s one small randomized control trial on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) that showed it did have some benefits.” An open trial in 2017 found that 48 per cent of participants saw a significant reduction in their symptoms from a course of CBT.
Gregory suggests an audiologist may be able to diagnose misophonia and offer some coping strategies. Other sufferers have found hypnotherapy, white noise or TRT (Tinnitus Retraining Therapy) helpful. More research is needed, says Gregory, into what causes misophonia and how it can be treated.
Until then: stock up on earplugs.
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