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Living With an Over-Sensitivity to Sounds: Misophonia

Carola is a mental health advocate and a freelance writer who focuses on mental health, mental illness, and cognitive conditions.

From an early age, I had a secret that I wished would just go away. Sounds associated with eating and drinking drove me crazy. People slurping or chewing could send me into an angry frenzy. The sound of cracking gum felt like a physical violation of my personal space. Other sounds like clicking pens and heavy breathing could also irritate me. My anxiety and stress levels went up during these episodes.

I often reacted to triggers by giving the offender dirty looks or by intense staring and frowning. I could not seem to control myself and would become frustrated. What was wrong with me? I felt guilt and shame for showing my negative feelings, and I despised myself for my lack of self-control.

I tried to find an explanation for my behavior. My mother was strict about proper mealtime etiquette: no slurping soup or beverages, chewing quietly with your mouth closed, and no stuffing your cheeks with food. Did that make me super sensitive to the bad table manners of others?

Another potential explanation was an extreme reaction to what I perceived as a violation of my personal space. I had experienced bullying and physical abuse as a child and became angry when I felt that someone had invaded my space. Another more scary possibility was that I had some form of mental illness. What was wrong with me?

A few years ago, I saw a TV talk show with celebrity Kelly Ripa, who identified this rare condition. Kelly described her anger, disgust, and frustration at the same sounds that irritated me. The program gave my condition a name – misophonia.

It was a relief for me to know that I was not weak and crazy. I could also explain this condition to the loved ones who were frustrated when my face showed anger or revulsion, though I am not sure they understood or totally accepted it. I do know that they hated it when I gave people dirty looks or rolled my eyes in frustration at certain sounds.

What Is Misophonia?

Misophonia is a condition in which people overreact to certain sounds with a fight-or-flight response, anger, disgust, and occasionally a desire to hurt the person making noise. Auditory triggers can be eating, drinking, breathing, or repetitive sounds such as pens tapping or water dripping. The term literally means a “hatred of sounds.” People with misophonia may also be triggered by visual stimuli as well.

In the book Understanding and Overcoming Misophonia, author Thomas H Dozier says: “The immediate negative emotions to a trigger are the hallmark of misophonia."

Research led by Newcastle University has found that people with this issue have increased abnormal connections between the brain’s auditory cortex and motor control areas. The motor control areas are usually related to the mouth, face, and throat. Previously, misophonia was thought to be a processing disorder. Recent research suggests that misophonia occurs when the brain's auditory cortex is strongly activated and creates a “supersensitised connection.”

Research participants had a difference in their brain structure and function in the frontal lobe. Brain imaging showed that people with misophonia have an abnormality in their emotional control mechanism. When trigger sounds or visual stimuli occur, their brains go into overdrive with sweating and an increased heart rate, and heightened negative emotions.

Triggering Sounds

Characteristics that trigger misophonia are:

  • Sounds from the mouth such as chomping, slurping, chewing (especially open-mouthed or gum chewing/cracking), crunching, lip-smacking
  • Body noises such as sniffling, breathing, snoring, clicking noises such as fingers on a keyboard or tapping fingers
  • Water dripping
  • Heavy breathing or snoring
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Signs of Misophonia in Childhood

Many people show signs of this condition in childhood. Some signs are:

  • Irrational reactions such as irritation or anger when sounds are made such as when drinking or eating, tapping sounds, or heavy breathing
  • Becoming enraged at eating sounds such as slurping or chewing noisily or with a mouth open
  • Verbally attacking people making these sounds
  • Becoming anxious in situations with potential triggers
  • Trying to avoid triggering situations

Signs of misophonia can start with a few symptoms that increase as people grow older. Emotional reactions can be discomfort, anxiety, disgust, annoyance, crying, rage, or panic, ranging from mild to extreme.

Ways to Manage Misophonia

I still have this condition, but it is much milder than it was in my childhood. I have learned to manage it. Here are some techniques I use to decrease my symptoms.

Reminding Myself That I Have a Condition

I take comfort in the fact that my reactions to sounds are because of a condition with a name, not because of my personal weakness or poor mental health. This helps me let go of guilt and shame when I could not stop giving the noisemaker an angry look.

Mindfulness

I prepared for occasions that might trigger me by deliberately telling myself to desensitize to sounds. This has considerably lessened my negative emotional reactions to triggers. It also helps me control my impulse to make a face and criticize the people making the annoying sounds.

Using Distraction

When I am triggered, I shift my focus to something else, such as a conversation or a nearby object. Wearing earbuds and listening to music on a bus or in crowds can block out annoying triggering sounds.

Telling People About It

I have told my loved ones about my condition, so they try to eat and drink quietly. This helps me feel safer at home, even though my loved ones sometimes forget.

Some patients with misophonia have had success with treatments such as auditory distraction (headphones or white noise) and cognitive behavioral therapy. Researchers continue to investigate this condition and are hopeful that therapies can be developed in the future to treat it. In the meantime, I am working on controlling my emotional reactions to certain sounds.

There are associations and societies that provide information, education, and support on misophonia for people who have this condition.

References:

Supersensitive connection causes hatred of noises, Newcastle University
Misophonia Might Not Be about Hating Sounds After All, Scientific American, Christiane Glitz, Maddie Bender
Misophonia: When sounds really do make you "crazy," Harvard Medical School, By James Cartreine, PhD
Misophonia: Kelly Ripa, a rare disorder and me, The Mercury News, Martha Ross

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2017 Carola Finch

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