AAs a teenager, I remember being moved almost to tears at the sound of a family member chewing muesli. Once, a friend eating dumplings forced me to flee the room. The noises a former roommate makes while chewing popcorn means I declined their movie invites for almost 20 years.
I’m not proud of myself for reacting like that – in fact, I’m quite embarrassed – but my responses seem inevitable. It is likely that I have misophonia. According to a scientific paper published last year, the same is true for 18% of Britons.
Otherwise known as “sound rage,” misophonia is “a decreased tolerance to certain sounds,” says Jane Gregory, a clinical psychologist at the University of Oxford who co-authored the paper and counts herself among the 18%.
Sound triggers are usually repetitive, she says. It’s not about “the loudness of the sound or necessarily the acoustic pattern”, but what it means to the observer. Eating noises are the most commonly reported, followed closely by so-called throat noises. (Gregory is spared the noise of the pigeons.)
“Chew, crunch, sniff, sniff, clear throat, whistle, breathe hard,” says Dr. Zach Rosenthal, who directs the Center for Misophonia and Emotion Regulation at Duke University in Durham, Carolina. North. “These are all relatively ordinary everyday things that people have to do, but in people with misophonia, they are experienced as very aversive.”
This “aversion reaction” can take the form of physical changes such as increased muscle tension or increased heart rate, or emotional responses such as irritability, shame and anxiety. This causes a fight, flight, or even a freeze reaction where, according to Gregory, “you get a really strong adrenaline reaction and it tells you you’re in danger or you’re being violated.”
Only around 14% of the UK population is aware of misophonia, according to Gregory’s article, a collaboration with King’s College London. Maybe one of the reasons, she suggests, is simply that it’s hard to talk about. “You’re basically saying to someone, ‘The sound of your eating and breathing – the sound of your sustaining life – repulses me.’ It’s really hard to find a polite way to say that. Maybe the movie Tár will help: its protagonist, played by Cate Blanchett, has an extreme reaction to the sound of a metronome.
Theories about the development of misophonia are exactly that. “A lot of people say they’ve always been a bit sensitive to sound, but then they remember a certain moment when it suddenly got a lot worse,” says Gregory. Rosenthal says it typically presents in late childhood or early adolescence and is often associated with family members. “People ask me all the time, ‘Why my family? Why my parents?’ The explanation is comfortingly logical: “You don’t blame, you don’t judge – you were probably closest to them.”
You may have observed a sibling eating baked beans, for example, and then once you notice it, your brain starts searching for it. Rosenthal describes the whirlwind: “It starts to be aversive and then I pay more attention to it, and then the more I pay attention to it the more I notice it, and then the more I notice it the more aversive it becomes…”
The impact can be severe. Gregory knows of relationships that ended in misophonia; she has met people who have moved multiple times to escape trigger neighbors. Others must choose careers based on where they can work without being disturbed by sounds. “If you don’t get any respite, you can get desperate,” she says.
However, strategies might help, such as introducing background noise when you eat. Gregory’s husband, who knows better than eating Monster Munch at home, can tell if she’s bothered by a sound because she’ll suddenly shout, “Siri, play Taylor Swift!”
Sometimes the best option is to leave. Gregory then suggests “slowing down your breathing, or just giving your mind a little work to do,” like playing a game for a minute. By the time you walk into the room, the sound may have disappeared, or you may feel better equipped, “because you know what’s coming.”
She also recommends “the opposite action – this idea that sometimes the more we avoid or block something, the more harmful it seems to us. In TCC [cognitive behavioural therapy], we do the opposite of what you want to do. In this vein, she tries to fight her instinct to shoot her husband, looking adoringly at him instead: “It’s a way to trip your brain and say: remember you love this person, remember that you are not really in danger”. .”
I make a note to try this the next time I hear someone eating scrambled eggs.