What is misophonia?
Why certain sounds can trigger discomfort, anxiety and rage.
That person who won’t stop sniffing on the train, that little fly buzzing around your office or that lingering sound the toilet makes long after it’s been flushed. Every day we are mildly irritated by sounds such as these, but for the most part, we move on and learn to ignore them.
Sufferers of misophonia, on the other hand, have less tolerance to certain patterns of sounds and are unable to overcome the annoyance in the way most people do. Sounds most commonly described as triggers include chewing noises, music seeping from headphones, scratching, tapping, throat clearing and sniffing. Reactions to these sounds include extreme discomfort, anxiety and rage.
Misophonia has only been recognised as a disorder in the last decade and while little research has been done on the condition, the variety of treatments available include sound desensitisation protocols, anger and stress management and other forms of psychological therapies.
Sometimes misophonia develops in patients of other audio disorders.
Pawel Jastreboff from the Tinnitus and Hyperacusis Centre at Emory University, Atlanta, specialises in the treatment of hearing disorders, including misophonia, and says these treatments have not been successful. He says that while you can’t be born with misophonia, you may have a genetic predisposition to the disorder. “There could be many reasons for developing misophonia, but generally it develops when exposure to sound is linked with a strong negative emotional state,” says Jastreboff.
The disorder is sometimes confused with hyperacusis, where sounds are perceived as abnormally loud or even physically painful. While sound level is not really important for misophonia, where patterns specific for a given patient are the determining factor, some hyperacusis sufferers have issues with noises over 40 to 50 decibels (sounds about as loud as normal conversation).
Sometimes misophonia develops in patients of other audio disorders. “It’s not uncommon for people with tinnitus (ringing in the ears) to become fearful of sounds,” says Myriam Westcott from Dineen and Westcott Audiologists in Melbourne. “At some level they are afraid external sounds will make it worse.”
Westcott says other reasons for developing misophonia include an obsession with sounds that irritated or scared you in childhood, or resisting sound intrusion on your personal space. “You have to understand how the brain processes sound,” says Westcott, as there is a fine line between annoying sounds for average people and those with misophonia.
Cody Horgan, a 37-year-old shipwright from Sydney, realised he had issues with sound when he was about 12 years old. For him, it can be an issue when travelling on the bus or in social situations where you can’t tune out the sounds. “I can’t handle listening to people eat,” he says. “It’s the chomping and clicking sound – saliva getting sloshed around in there.”