My dear friend Jodi asked me to do a post about misophonia, which resulted in a LOT of words. Thus, this is the first in a series of (most likely) 2 posts about misophonia.
Hello. My name is Olivia, and when I hear chewing, smacking, slurping noises, I have to restrain myself from doing physical violence to whoever is creating those noises.
No, I’m not just too sensitive. I’m not making a big deal out of nothing. I shouldn’t just get over it. The sound of chewing is honestly painful for me, and despite all my reassurances to myself, my attempts to drown it out with other noises, my deep knowledge that no one is trying to attack me with their chewing, the rage builds the moment I hear mouth noises. I can’t seem to change that.
I have misophonia.
What the fuck is misophonia?
Cool story Olivia, but why are you talking about your weird internal problems? Well because it turns out that a surprising number of people have similar problems, especially folks with sensory sensitivities or (anecdotally) other neurodivergences. It appears to be more common in women and typically develops around age 12, but that’s most of what we know demographically.
And it also turns out that a lot of neurotypical folks have no idea what I’m talking about when I bring it up, so we’re going to do a twofold job here today: a little bit of education about misophonia, and a little bit of problem solving for those who deal with it.
So let’s start with what misophonia is, and some of the science about why it happens.
According to Harvard Health “People with misophonia are affected emotionally by common sounds — usually those made by others, and usually ones that other people don’t pay attention to. The examples above (breathing, yawning, or chewing) create a fight-or-flight response that triggers anger and a desire to escape. This disorder is little studied and we don’t know how common it is. It affects some worse than others and can lead to isolation, as people suffering from this condition try to avoid these trigger sounds.”
Now when I say emotionally affected I don’t mean annoyed or upset. I mean full on rage, a desire to harm another person, a panic attack, a meltdown, MAJOR emotional response. Some people even feel homicidal or suicidal urges, although that’s on the extreme end of the spectrum.
So what the heck causes some people to have these odd reactions? We don’t have a ton of good research yet, as the disorder is only recently named and studied. We do have preliminary evidence that those with misophonia have different neural responses to trigger noises than those without it, and that trigger noises lead to body responses like increased heart rate or sweat.
That means there is at least some physiological element to the problem, or at the very least that we’re not just making it up or making a big deal for no reason. Our brains respond differently.
There are some other theories out there: The Jastebroffs suggest that “sounds (processed in the “auditory part of the brain”) were associated during a negative experience with a person, place or experience within the limbic system (the “emotional part of the brain) and then stored in memory (via the “thinking part of the brain”).
Once this negative association is formed, every time the same sound is encountered, a person with misophonia will experience what’s known as autonomic arousal.” (Source). Some people have suggested it’s a form of synaesthesia, related to OCD or anxiety disorders, or has its basis in another mental illness. As research progresses, we should learn more about the sources of misophonia, and hopefully more about appropriate ways to treat it.
Please make it stop
Speaking of appropriate ways to treat it, what are you supposed to do if you have misophonia and spend your life filled with indescribable rage at basic human behaviors? Unsurprisingly, we also don’t have a ton by way of treatments, and the ones we do have really don’t have much research or evidence behind them. Primarily it has been communities of individuals with misophonia sharing techniques that work for them.
The first and most obvious solution is to try to get rid of or avoid the noise. Some folks have used different earplugs, whether that’s the simple cheap orange foam ones, or something like Vibes, which were designed to reduce some noise while maintaining clarity in music. Noise cancelling headphones are another option, and some people even use hearing aids to adjust the sound they’re hearing.
I personally prefer to drown out the noise. If there is music playing, a TV on, or if I am eating at the same time as someone else, my misophonia typically is not triggered. Some folks prefer white noise machines, or other versions of noise to mask the trigger sound. Your mileage may vary on this one though, as some people need very loud noises to drown out the misophonia. Most drastically, you can simply leave the room where the trigger is happening. This can be really challenging for people who are triggered by mouth noises, as it means mealtimes simply cannot be social. That’s one of the many reasons that sufferers would strongly prefer more research that could indicate ways to desensitize or change the reaction.
Another option that I found in my research is mimicry. According to some research and anecdotal evidence, mimicking the noise that triggers misophonia can alleviate some of the anxiety. In my personal experience, this has absolutely been true of chewing noises. If I am also chewing, it seems to cancel out the other person’s noise. Again, your mileage may vary.
There are limited case studies that show some efficacy in symptom reduction from Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Exposure Therapy. Note that this DOES NOT mean simply exposing yourself to the sounds and hoping you get used to it. You should be asking a therapist to conduct the exposure therapy with you, beginning with a low level of intensity, and ideally sandwiching the trigger noise between pleasant sounds.
A subset of the exposure therapy vein is called Trigger Tamer, and it’s an app that exposes you to a few seconds of a trigger sound, then asks you to identify your physical reaction and change that physical reaction (e.g. if your shoulders tense up, find a way to relax those muscles immediately upon hearing the trigger). This is still an experimental technique, but the app is only $40 so in terms of investment it’s not too bad.
Some people say hypnosis has worked for them. I can neither confirm nor deny if it works.
Another thing to investigate is Sensory Processing Disorder, a disorder related to autism. It’s when your brain cannot process the input of your senses and either over or understimulates you. There are far more resources out there about SPD than there are about misophonia, and one of the best places to start is a sensory diet. It might seem counterintuitive to fight overstimulation with more stimulation, but I have found that deep pressure like a weighted blanket, an intense hug, or a cat on your lap can go a long way towards calming my other senses. It’s also good to remember that if you are experiencing a misophonia trigger, there may also be additional sensory overload happening that you aren’t noticing. If the lights are too bright, the smells too intense, the room too crowded, your response to trigger sounds will be stronger. If possible, limit the amount of sensory input that’s coming in if you absolutely need to tolerate your trigger sounds.
The last overall technique that people use is not focusing on the sound as a trigger but rather learning how to manage the panic or anxiety that comes with it. That might include CBT, DBT, deep breathing, mindfulness, or any of dozens of other techniques that people use to manage anxiety. One element that many people with misophonia might forget about is that you are more susceptible to triggers when your overall stress levels are higher. That means if you’re eating, sleeping, exercising, taking your meds, and doing all your other coping techniques that keep your general anxiety low, misophonia will likely not be as intense.
So now that we’ve covered the basics, I’m going to cut off part 1 of this series here. Next week I’ll be covering the social elements of misophonia: how do you manage relationships when misophonia gets in the way, how do you communicate your needs to others, and how do you deal with competing access needs (someone’s fidget sets off your misophonia). See ya then!