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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..

What Is Misophonia?

Misophonia is a condition in which people overreact with anger to certain sounds, such as eating and drinking, or repetitive sounds, like pens tapping or water dripping.

My Story

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 chewing gum 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 set me off.

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, 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, chew 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 as a child and become angry when I felt that someone had invaded my space. Another more scary possibility was that I had some form of mental illness. Was I crazy?

Kelly Ripa

Kelly Ripa

Putting a Name on My Condition

A few years ago, I saw a TV talk show with celebrity Kelly Ripa that 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. The word means “hatred of sounds.”

What a relief it was to know that I was not weak and crazy. I could also explain this to the loved ones who were frustrated when my face showed anger or revulsion, though I am not sure that 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.

Research on Misophonia

Newcastle University in the United Kingdom did a study that investigated how people with and without misophonia reacted to certain sounds. They found that people with this condition have 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 occur, their brains go into overdrive with sweating and an increased heart rate as well as heightened negative emotions.

Triggering Sounds

Sounds that trigger misophonia are:

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

Signs of Misophonia in Childhood

According to PsychCentral, many people show signs of this condition in childhood.

Some signs are:

  • Irrational reactions such as irritation or anger to certain sounds made when drinking or eating, tapping sounds, dripping water, or heavy breathing
  • Become enraged at eating sounds such as slurping or chewing noisily or with a mouth open
  • May verbally attack people making these sounds
  • Become anxious in situations with potential triggers
  • Try to avoid triggering situations

Symptoms of misophonia can start with a few symptoms that increase as people grow older. Emotional reactions can be discomfort, 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 manage my symptoms:

Reminding myself that I have a condition: I take comfort in the fact that my reactions to sounds are a result of a condition with a name, and not personal weakness or poor mental health. This helps me to let go of guilt and shame that I could not resist giving a person an angry look for making triggering sounds.

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

Distraction: I shift my focus to something else, such as a conversation or a nearby object. Wearing ear buds and listing to music on a bus or in crowds also can block out triggering sounds.

Tell people about it: I have told my loved ones about my condition and they try to eat and drink quietly. This help me feel safer at home, even though my loved ones sometimes forget.

Concluding Thoughts

Misophonia is currently not recognized as a medical disorder, and there are no medically proven treatments. Fortunately, researchers are investigating this condition and are hopeful that therapies can be developed in the future to treat it. In the meantime, I am still working on controlling my emotional reactions to certain sounds.

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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