Does the sound of people eating get you into an irrational rage? There may be a reason why. We ask a clinical psychologist what the symptons of misophonia are and how it can affect everyday life.
To what could be described as the average person, noises and movements blend together in the background and many of us wouldn’t notice if someone is chewing or tapping their foot. Those with misophonia, who have an extreme sensitivity to these sounds, will experience intense distress. They cannot ignore these noises or calmly endure them, which can make life debilitating.
What is misophonia?
Misophonia is when an everyday sound causes a strong emotional reaction, usually anger, anxiety or disgust. Within milliseconds, the sound is interpreted incorrectly by the brain as a threat and activates the brain’s alarm system, the amygdala. This starts the ‘fight-flight-freeze’ response, releasing adrenaline and cortisone to ready the body to react. However, in reality there is no threat from these sounds. We do not fully understand how many children and adults suffer with misophonia but it is more common for people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), tinnitus, hyperacusis, autism, and sensory processing difficulties. Why it happens is not clear but there may be psychological and neurological causes or part of a broader intolerance to sensory stimuli.
What are the key symptoms of misophonia?
There is no official test for misophonia, but decreased tolerance for sound is a key symptom along with a strong negative emotional reaction. Common triggers are repetitive sounds such as breathing and eating but can also be animal and electronic in nature. These sounds can feel unbearable with an instinct to stop the noise or get away. People with misophonia may flinch and cover their ears, cry, become angry or experience a panic attack.
How can misophonia impact on everyday life?
Misophonia can have a huge impact on relationships and social interactions. Children may struggle with behavioural issues in the classroom or wish to avoid school altogether. Time spent in other people’s company can often be challenging with negative reactions and blame directed at the person making noise. Misunderstandings and a lack of coping skills can lead to hurt feelings, friction and arguments.
Can misophonia be cured?
To date, researchers have not found a scientifically proven way to stop or rewire the brain’s response. However, one recent study has attempted to treat misophonia with a psychological therapy called cognitive behaviour therapy and showed symptom improvement for almost half (42%) the 90 patients. An alternative but unproven approach is via tinnitus retraining therapy by an audiologist, which can re-programme the relevant part of the brain.
Top tips for managing misophonia
Triggers: Identify your triggers and dampen them with headphones by listening to music/audiobooks/white noise or use earplugs. It should be noted that using earplugs can increase sound sensitivity, so should only be a short-term measure. If you need to, remove yourself from the situation.
Emotions: Focus on your breathing and notice changes in your body. Tell yourself that this is your body reacting to your trigger. It is not the other person’s fault and they aren’t trying to upset you. Remember this feeling will pass and you will feel calmer soon.
Mealtimes: Put on background noise to dampen the triggers. Sit next to people and not opposite them as you will reduce both the visual and audible triggers.
Work: Explain that you work best in a quiet, distraction-free environment. Explore working from home where possible.
Relationships: Let people know what sounds bother you, and that you might need to take measures to cope. Have an exit plan if it's getting too much for you and find a way to politely excuse yourself. Use support groups to help you feel less isolated and learn strategies from others.
Prevention: Boost your ability to cope by managing stress, prioritising sleep, exercising and eating well. Try mindfulness or meditation to help calm your nervous system.
Dr Laura Keyes is a Clinical Psychologist, registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and British Psychological Society (BPS). She runs a private practice offering psychological therapy and assessments for neurodiversity to children and adults in Bedfordshire. www.drlaurakeyes.com