An extreme intolerance to certain sounds

"It was good to discover than I wasn't just being an asshole"
— comment on /r/misophonia

"Misophonia is a neurobehavioral syndrome phenotypically characterized by heightened autonomic nervous system arousal and negative emotional reactivity "
Frontiers in Neuroscience

Misophonia is broadly defined as an intolerance to certain sounds, usually repetitive. These are known as trigger sounds, and vary from person to person. Similarly, the reactions a person has are highly variable, ranging from mild discomfort through disgust to raging anger. It's not classified as a psychiatric disorder or even a diagnosable medical condition, and has only been taken seriously by researchers in the past five to ten years.

The origin seems to be neurological, a dysfunction of the brain's auditory centre rather than the external hearing. There is also a suggestion that it is a form of sound/emotion synesthesia. Sufferers typically demonstrate exaggerated emotional responses to their trigger sounds, "increased sympathetic nervous system arousal, accompanied by emotional distress" according to the paper linked above.

It is not a phobia, that would be a fear of noise, phonophobia. It's a deep and equally irrational hatred, accompanied by the reactions that usually accompany loathing. The jaws may clench, there may be a flush response, a rush of adrenaline.

Causes and symptoms vary quite significantly. Causes are generally repetitive sounds such as eating noises, throat clearing, finger tapping, pen clicking. Symptoms range from a intense feeling of disgust to outright rage. Many people report a fight or flight response. A sufferer's own noises seem not to have the same effect, though. Either or brains have tuned the stimulus out, or the sound itself doesn't trigger the response.

My own experience

For me the triggers are almost noises connected with eating. Slurping or crunching are the biggest instigators, along with open-mouth noises and the smacking of lips, but plate-scrapers also affect me deeply. Apples, almonds, crisps and snacks *crunchcrunchcrunch* are just dreadful, dry toast is painful. People clipping nails. It's not about volume either; if someone way across the room is crunching on nuts or crisps it's the same response for me as if they were sitting next to me.

My major response is anger. It's irrational and excruciating. I feel my muscles tense, I want to roar. I want to leave the room or scream "Shut up!" at the perpetrator. I want to slap the food out of their hands, hit them in the face. I feel like doing anything that will stop the noise. In the very worst cases, I literally have to leave, get away from the sound.

I have known about my responses to this for years, since childhood. I believe my father suffered from it. There were (still are!) people I couldn't abide to eat or drink with. One made a peculiar noise when he was swallowing a drink, one made sticky mouth noises when he ate, and scraped his spoon or fork against his teeth. There came a point where I decided I simply couldn't eat (or drink) with them.

I have found that attempting to explain it is hard. Most people simply don't believe that it's a thing, and they assume I'm just an intolerant arse. Others challenge it, with "Well, you make noises when you eat, and manage." Others have even mocked me. Of course, once I had a name for it, it became easier, but that did not happen for me until about five or six years ago.

The worst experience I have had was before I had a name for the condition. Some of Christine's family were staying with us, and I made the mistake of making soup for supper. After several rounds of the guests slurping from the spoon, I asked very politely if they would desist. The mother looked at me with a mischievous look on her face, almost a grimace of evil. She looked me in the eye and deliberately, maliciously and dramatically slurped a mouthful of soup. I yelled at her so hard, threw my own spoon on the table and stormed out of the room, swearing. I came back a minute or so later to apologise for my behaviour, and by this time she had encouraged her daughter to do the same.

By this time, Christine and Tess had come to realise that there was an issue with me and eating sounds, and had kindly moderated their own behaviour. Some people don't have it so lucky. Many sufferers continue to suffer at the hands of people who are either disbelieving, thoughtless or just plain cruel.

Coping with misophonia

There's a problem. It's hard because there have been few quality studies. There are no drugs for it, and no therapy has really been tested. Some have seen success with tinnitus retraining therapy, which can help with tolerance. Cognitive behaviour therapy has enabled improvement in some cases.

It's really down to individuals developing coping strategies. Mine include:

  • telling myself I love this person, and this is part of them
  • listening to music with headphones (though this is considered rude by most dinner table etiquette)
  • distracting myself by eating something (my own internal sounds don't trigger me)
  • leaving the area
  • politely asking for remedial action

These strategies have limited success. Sometimes there is simply no polite escape, and for everyone's benefit, I scram. If I'm at the table, I can distract myself with my own meal; if I'm in a social situation I will find some snacks for myself.

There are occasions when everything fails. When watching The Return of the King at the cinema I fell apart during the scene in which Lord Denethor is eating a meal. There are closeups of his mouth, there are smacking sounds. It was a nightmare for me. I think I squealed, I shut my eyes and covered my ears. My companions thought I was having some sort of a fit, which in a sense I was. I had to explain to everyone afterward. Some were sympathetic, some mocked me. One mentioned that he was affected by it. One said they'd witnessed others in the audience react negatively. To this day, I simply cannot watch that scene. As it starts, I cover my ears and duck my head, and ask people to nudge me when it's done.

I'm at the higher end of intolerance and after many years have learned many things about dealing with it. Mostly that some people are just gits and arseholes about the feelings of others. But mostly I've discovered that I'm not the arse, I'm the victim of some weird bit of wiring.

Finally, I read a couple of articles that have linked misophonia with enhanced creativity. I live in hope that I can find a use for it. Maybe after all, the suffering will be worthwhile.

Scientific American article
Useful information on coping
links to creativity

JD says This is a sound write-up.

$ xclip -o | wc
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