This Is What It’s Like to Be Allergic to Sounds
Do you suffer from misophonia? Here's everything you need to know.
For my editor it’s the sound of clinking ice in a ceramic coffee mug. When he hears it, his body enters fight-or-flight mode, and he becomes consumed by a certain alien, irrational anger. “For some reason, I find it worse than hearing fingernails scraping down a chalkboard or fire engine sirens at full-blast,” he says. “Also, of course, it’s super specific—if only I didn’t live in the era of iced coffee.” If that experience sounds familiar—and you’ve ever been accused of grouchiness, insensitivity, or rudeness after hearing a noisy sound, such as chewing gum, dripping water, or people eating popcorn—you may be one of the many people who suffer from a condition that has only in recent years received a name: misophonia.
Sometimes called selective sound sensitivity syndrome, misophonia can cause the person who has it to notice sounds that are often inaudible to others, causing them discomfort, anxiety, and sometimes violence-inducing anger. But how do you know if you have it, and what exactly causes it? Most importantly—what options are there for overcoming this sound allergy?
Read on for answers to all these questions.
1. Misophonia is a condition that means ordinary sounds drive you crazy
Those who suffer from misophonia have strong, emotional reactions to everyday sounds. These are things that the average person wouldn’t mind or might not even notice—the yawn of a coworker, the chewing of food by a spouse, or the sniffing sound of the person on the subway car next to you. But while the average person would take little notice of these mundane noises, they set off a furious response in the misophoniac, a near-panic attack that sends them either into a rage or, more likely, a flight response that has them running for the door, seeking to be as far away fro the sounds as possible.
2. It’s triggered by some surprising sounds
The Misophonia Association lists the following sounds as among the most common triggers for an episode of this condition:
- Gum Chewing
- Eating Sounds
- Lip Smacking
- Speaking Sounds (s, p, k)
- Breathing Sounds
- Repetitive softer sounds like pen clicking, pencil tapping
- Nasal noises, throat clearing
- Sucking through the teeth sounds
- Sight of gum chewing or eating with the mouth open
- Pet licking or nails clicking
- High heels on hard floors
- Dogs barking
3. The trigger sounds usually relate to the mouth
Despite the varied list of trigger sounds above, researchers have generally found that the sounds that really set off a misophoniac mostly relate to eating and mouth noises. One study estimated that about 80% of the trigger sounds relate to the mouth.
4. Misophonia can get pretty extreme
While many sufferers feel bursts of anger or disgust at the sounds, some can become violent, hurting others or themselves. In other cases, it can lead to extreme antisocial behavior. The New York Times spoke with Olana Tansley-Hancock, who described how he could no longer join in family meals once the misophonia set in during childhood. “I can only describe it as a feeling of wanting to punch people in the face when I heard the noise of them eating,” he said.
5. You start experiencing misophonia symptoms around age 12
Generally the age at which sufferers begin to notice their sensitivity to sounds is around the age of 12—a survey of about 200 misophonia sufferers isolated that as the average age at which respondents first became aware of the condition. Though cases of adult-onset misophonia have been found.
6. There’s a Misophonia Association
Helping to advocate for those who suffer from misophonia, offer support, and spread the word about the ailment is the Misophonia Association. The nonprofit group is funded by donations and run by volunteers and states that its mission is to “stand together in our rejection of bias, prejudice, and exclusion. We value respect, encouragement, professionalism, and courteous speech, and behavior. We recognize effort, intentions and accomplishment. We applaud helpfulness, positivity, and collaboration.” Sounds like some pretty nice goals.
7. There’s an annual Misophonia Convention
If you really want to feel connected to the misophonia community, buy a ticket for the next Misophonia Convention. Hosted by the Misophonia Association, the event brings together those suffering from the ailment and those researching it for a series of discussions, lectures, and activities. Last year’s was held in Las Vegas, where the 160 attendees (including almost 30 youth, from college down to junior high) came together to hear a number of researchers present their work, watch a documentary about misophonia, and raise money for further research and awareness campaigns (including through a silent auction).
8. There’s brain science to back it up
Neuroscientists at Britain’s Newcastle University conducted brain scans of those who suffered from misophonia and found that when the subjects heard the trigger sounds, their anterior insular cortex (the area of the brain believed to be responsible for emotional feelings) went haywire. The researchers also found that the AIC connected differently to the memory-recalling brain areas of the amygdala and hippocampus in misophonia sufferers than it did in those who did not suffer from it.
“We think that misophonia may be heavily connected to recalling past memories, because people with misophonia have had very bad experiences,” one of the researchers told The New York Times.
9. Misophonia sufferers are different than non-sufferers
In addition to the different way the AIC connects to the amygdala and hippocampus, those who deal with misophonia are different than those who do not in other ways. Researchers using whole-brain MRI scans to get a full view of sufferers’ brains found that they produced higher amounts of myelination—a fatty substance that provides insulation to nerve cells similar to how electrical tape wraps around a wire. Researchers have not figured out why this is, but the higher levels interest them.
10. The term was officially coined in 2001
Though people have likely suffered from misophonia for decades, if not centuries, we didn’t have a name for it until the 21st century. In 2001, U.S. scientists Margaret and Pawel Jastreboff, who distinguished it from selective sound sensitivity syndrome, which only related to an intolerance of soft sounds (misophonia can relate to both soft and loud sounds).
11. There are different levels of it
Misophonia UK, an organization dedicated to research and public awareness around misophonia, has developed a Misophonia Activation Scale, aimed at helping doctors and patients to determine how severe their condition is. It ranges from level 0 (“Person with misophonia hears a known trigger sound but feels no discomfort”) and makes a slow burn until things start getting uncomfortable around level 5 (“Person with misophonia adopts more confrontational coping mechanisms, such as overtly covering their ears, mimicking the trigger person, engaging in other echolalias, or displaying overt irritation”) before topping out at level 10 (“Actual use of physical violence on a person or animal (i.e., a household pet). Violence may be inflicted on self (self-harming)”).
12. Even skeptics have come around to it
When talk of misophonia started to really take off, reactions generally fell into two camps: (1) “See! It’s really a condition. There’s a scientific reason I get so angry when you breathe loud,” and (2) “They’re just trying to find a fancy way to say ‘over-sensitive.’” But while plenty of people rolled their eyes as the condition drew attention, many—particularly in the scientific community—have become convinced by the evidence.
“I was part of the skeptical community myself,” Tim Griffiths, professor of Cognitive Neurology at Newcastle University, said when he and his team released their findings about the condition, “until we saw patients in the clinic.” He added that he hoped his findings would serve as a reassurance to people with misophonia that the discomfort they experience is legitimate.
13. There is help
While it might seem like having misophonia means you will just have to live with it the rest of your life, the scientific community is developing treatments. Misophonia clinics are popping up around the country, which are experimenting with such programs as “auditory distraction”—in which white noise or other sounds are used to mask or redirect the offending sounds.
Another technique is tinnitus retraining therapy, which sort of builds up the strength of your auditory muscles and makes the subject better able to handle certain noises. Just as the ailment is still relatively new, so are the treatments, but early results look promising.
14. Cognitive behavior therapy is also effective
One technique that has been found to particularly effective in managing misophonia, and can even be done on your own, is cognitive behavioral therapy. This is an approach that focuses on the sufferer’s thoughts, emotions, and responses to stimuli, helping the subject identify patterns of unhealthy behavior and effectively redirect their own thoughts and responses to the sounds. A trial that put 90 patients with misophonia through an eight-week cognitive behavioral therapy resulted in 48% of the patients showing a significant reduction in their symptoms.
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