Above: Image © alashi, iStockphoto

Do you know anyone who makes too much noise when they eat? Or someone who shuffles their feet when they walk? A lot of people find these things kind of annoying. But if they completely drive you mad, you just might have a rare neurological condition called misophonia.

You already know of at least one person with this unfortunate neurological condition: me! The sound of nails on a chalkboard probably makes you cringe. But for people like me, lots of other sounds can be unbearable, too. What might sound like normal dinner conversation to you sounds to me like Edward Scissorhands is scratching my ears.

Guests chomping at their food and smacking their lips are two of the many sounds I absolutely cannot stand. Sometimes at dinner parties, things get so bad that I finish my meal as quickly as possible so I can get away from these unbearable sounds!

What is misophonia?

Misophonia literally means “hatred of sound”. It is also sometimes called selective sound sensitivity syndrome. Misophonia doesn’t mean you hate all sounds. It means you hate a certain set of sounds. Different people react to specific sounds, which are called trigger sounds. Common trigger sounds include chewing, hissing “s” sounds, and shuffling feet. Some people with misophonia can also get triggered by the sight of repetitive movements, like someone fidgeting or tapping a pen.

Of course, many people can be bothered by these sounds. You might even shoot a look of disgust at whoever is responsible. But when someone with misophonia hears a trigger sound, their reactions are much more extreme. They might get very angry, panic, or flee the situation altogether. Some people begin sweating and feel their muscles tense up. Others can fly into a violent rage and even hurt someone!

Did you know? Misophonia is a condition that causes affected people to find certain sounds extremely annoying. It should not be mistaken with phonophobia, which causes people to be afraid of certain sounds.

What causes misophonia?

Misophonia was first described by researchers in the early 2000s. Since then, only a handful of studies have been completed. Scientists don’t yet fully understand the condition. However, they think that it may be related to the limbic system. That is the part of the brain that controls emotions. When someone with misophonia hears a trigger sound, the limbic systems triggers a “fight or flight” response. The person will have a strong urge to either stop the situation (fight) or escape the situation as quickly as possible (flight).

Did you know? Celebrity Kelly Ripa diagnosed herself with the rare neurological disorder misophonia. She asks her children to eat quietly!

Living with misophonia

Misophonia rarely gets diagnosed. This could be because people who have it often don’t realize it’s a medical condition. Also, the disorder is not widely known in the medical world. For whatever reason, not much has been done to educate the general public about misophonia.

And because the disorder is not widely understood, those who have it often don’t get the emotional support that they need. Family and friends who don’t have the condition might just think you’re being petty or overly sensitive. They might even tease you, mimicking trigger sounds as a joke. This can cause a person with misophonia to become upset, frustrated, anxious, and panicked.

Sometimes, it can help to speak up. However, telling someone to be quiet or to stop doing what they’re doing can also lead to fights and lost friends! So it’s not surprising that some people with misophonia become socially isolated. They may even start keeping to themselves for fear of verbally or even physically attacking someone they love.

It’s not just the person with misophonia who suffers from the condition, but also their loved ones. Take me, for example. I cannot sit at the dinner table with my parents without clenching my fists.

Did you know? Misophonia affects 60% of people with tinnitus (ringing in the ears).

Easing the pain

There is no known cure for misophonia. However, there are a some things that seem to help some people with the condition.

For example, some people find it helpful to use a hearing aid that gives off white or pink noise. This is not your typical hearing aid. You only activate it if you hear a trigger sound, which is then partly drowned out by the noise. Unfortunately, these hearing aids can be very expensive.

Other people with misophonia simply wear earplugs to cut down the volume of any trigger sounds. The problem with ear plugs is that they cut out other sounds that are not necessarily trigger sounds.

Other possible treatment options for misophonia include tinnitus retraining therapy, which involves counselling and sound therapy.

Research is ongoing into this rare disorder. As a person with misophonia, I hope that it will become more widely known. But until then, if someone gives you the death stare while you’re eating, maybe you could just chew more quietly!

Learn More!

About misophonia:

Misophonia (2015)
University of South Florida Health

How My Shrink Cured My Misophonia for Free (2014)
W. Aron, Psychology Today

Scientific research on misophonia:

Misophonia: a disorder of emotion processing of sounds (2014)
S. Kumar, O. Hancock, T. Cope, W. Sedley, J. Winston, T. D. Griffiths Journal of Neurology, Neuroscience and Psychiatry 85

Misophonia: physiological investigations and case descriptions (2013)
M. Edelstein, D. Brang, R. Rouw & V. S. Ramachandran, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience

Sarah Zulkifli

Born and raised in sunny Singapore, I graduated with a BSc (Hons) in Biomedical Sciences from University of Bradford and got my first job as a microscopist at Agency for Science, Technology and Research. Whilst at work, I was given the opportunity to do science public outreach as well as science writing. This got me excited and I then started my Joint Master’s degree in Science Communication at National University of Singapore and Australian National University. My thesis is focusing on how we can improve science public outreach in climate change. I enjoy dancing and exploring the globe to meet new people and understand different cultures.

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