As I write this, a woman is sitting next to me eating, and it makes me want to dislocate my jaw and scream as loud as I can, or tear handfuls of my hair, or smack the food out of her hand . Or all of the above.
I have a condition called misophonia (literally “hatred of sound”) and according to a study by King’s College London, as many as one in five people struggle with it. It is characterized by a negative emotional reaction to specific sounds, frequent eating sounds, heavy breathing or repetitive sounds such as pen clicking or nail tapping.
I think ‘negative emotional reaction’ is selling it a bit. This is not the only dislike. I have yelled at loved ones about these sounds, left cinema movies, moved house and dug my nails into my hand until it turned white more times than I can count .
But I’m stuck with it. Little is known about why some of them are so angry. “There is still no conclusive research on myphonia,” says Dr Jane Gregory, a clinical psychologist who has the condition herself. She has spent five years researching miphones, which she believes is an adaptive feature most humans leave behind with evolution.
“It’s the same mechanism in your brain that allows you to hear the sound of someone walking behind you, even when the traffic is loud,” explains Dr. Gregory. “So the paths are quieter than the traffic, but you can still hear the footsteps. And your brain says, ‘Oh, that could be something, don’t ignore it. Be on your guard.’” Unfortunately for anyone who suffers from dysphonia, this fight-or-flight mode is also triggered by non-threatening things, like the noise of eating and people breathing.
Like most neurological conditions, misphonia can be something you’re born with, or it can be triggered by trauma. It’s door number two for me, unfortunately, because I was exposed to sounds I shouldn’t have heard by an abusive family member. I won’t put too fine a point on it, but this means to me that sex noise is enemy number one.
Different people have different triggers and they have all seen Dr. Gregory, even one driven wild by the sound of boiling water being poured, or his own personal vendetta against pigeon feeding. Misophonia is also manifested in varying degrees of severity. I always thought I had the worst you could have. I was wrong. Sussie, a 28-year-old writer and author, had such persistent hearing loss that she wished she was deaf. “When I was young and couldn’t escape the stimuli I often thought that being able to deactivate my ears would be a nicer way to live,” she says. “I had a great group of friends and family, but the noises would overwhelm me. But if I were deaf, people would work around that. There are people who go their whole lives without listening to them – I wanted that option.”
Sussie is not the first dysfunctional person to think like this. Adeel Ahmad, 46, another sufferer, has spoken to nearly 100 other misophonia sufferers over the past few years in his role hosting The Misophonia Podcast, a support podcast to better understand the condition. One person, who Ahmad will not name for his privacy, went through Sussie’s deactivation listening plan. “I spoke to someone recently,” he says, “who, as a teenager, quietly left the dinner table, went to the bathroom, and proceeded to shove a pair of tweezers into her ear almost completely, and she is still convinced that he caused it. some damage.”
This is the problem with misophonia – you have two solutions: stop the noise or leave. The first option can be lonely and uncomfortable and the second extremely remote. Cris, 48, has structured his entire life around his misophonies – he works from home, eats dinner in a different room than his wife, and keeps interaction with the noisy world to a minimum. It means he throws things out. “Even though my background is in theatre, I don’t go to see plays because the sounds of the audience annoy me,” he tells me.
I often thought it would be nicer to deactivate my ears
Leaving is often the best option, because, as Dr. Gregory notes, “There is no gold standard treatment for myofona.”
“The most promising options being tested are CBT to help your brain understand that these sounds are not really a threat,” she explains, “or therapy to process early memories associated with sounds. Some audiologists prescribe in-ear devices to mask the sounds, which can be especially helpful in school and office environments.”
Cris still tries to enjoy loud environments and sometimes it’s good. But other times… not so much. “My wife and I recently went to a company event,” says Cris. “As soon as I got there, people were eating chips, and I was like, ‘I can’t be here.’ So I sat out in the car and listened to music while she hung out with co-workers.” This may sound sad, but Cris doesn’t mind — he’s not suffering in silence, in fact, quite the opposite.
Not all suffering is the same, however, and I remember suffering in silence. A wider understanding of miphones would change a lot: people could ask others, politely, to chew with their mouths closed and they would understand and not take offence. Children could take exams in private rooms, similar to those allocated to children with ADHD. Parents would be more patient when their children were crying and dad was slurping his soup. People would know that CBT can help reduce it. Awareness is everything. And until then, misophoniaics, I have two words for you: AirPod pros.