Imagine for a moment that you’ve just gotten into your warm bed after a long day. You are about to drift off to sleep, and then suddenly — your roommate begins snoring. His growling snores are loud, only barely muffled by a thin wall, and with every rhythmic snore, it becomes clearer and louder. It is the only sound you can hear. Inside of you, your heart begins racing, your blood is boiling, and you feel the anger, the irritation, the disgust growing deep in your belly. You try to sleep but the irritation is turning slowly turning into rage. You put earplugs in but the snoring is still audible.
The irritation turns to rage and begins to overpower you. It turns into panic. It feels like you’ve done everything to try to cope with this. In this chaotic frenzy, you may start to have violent fantasies playing through your head of how you’re going to shut him up. You fantasize about punching him in the face. The rage consumes you, and you will do whatever it takes to stop the noise.
Imagine that feeling of burning panic and rage, but this time while out at a nice lunch with your family. Imagine that feeling of sudden and extreme irritation also creeping up on you while having a fancy dinner out with your spouse, or a night out to the movies with friends. Then imagine trying to explain this sudden change in behavior to your loved ones, colleagues, and friends.
That’s what it feels like to suffer from misophonia.
Everyone experiences problems with unpleasant sounds: maybe it’s a dog barking or a baby crying. That’s quite normal. What is not normal is when this becomes a daily or hourly occurrence, and when it starts to interfere with your life. That’s when it becomes clinical misophonia.
I have been suffering from this hidden mental condition since childhood, and I am learning every day how to manage it. I hope that by shedding some light onto this mysterious condition, I am able to help misophonia sufferers and to hopefully share some insight about how to cope with — and even possibly cure — this isolating condition. If you’re a person close to someone suffering from misophonia, I hope this article gives you a deeper understanding that may be helpful as well.
What is Misophonia?
Reactions to TriggersCoping SkillsCoping Skills That Work
Use white noise
Headsets at the theater
Imagine yourself in their shoes
Leave and breathe
Explain it to people
Join a forumWhat Doesn’t Work
BlameBeyond Coping Skills
What is Misophonia?
Misophonia, also known to some as Selective Sound Sensitivity Syndrome, is a fairly rare condition. It was only recently recognized as a condition in 2001. There are some in the medical community that are still skeptical about whether misophonia should even be considered a real disorder, but to the sufferer, the effects of misophonia are real and often make you feel like an outsider in your own hidden world. The average age of onset for this neurological condition is 11–12 years old.
Although there are many studies being done right now about misophonia, it is still a condition shrouded by a cloak of misunderstanding.
The word misophonia translates literally to “hatred of sound.” The sufferer has automatic physical reactions to everyday sounds, which can make something as normal as a meal torturous for the sufferer. Certain stimuli, or triggers, create automatic physical and emotional responses such as feelings of panic, rage, and anxiety. These types of involuntary reactions brought on by average, everyday sights and sounds can make the most benign tasks unbearable. Even the lesser triggers can cause anxiety throughout the day because it always feels like we’re doing whatever we can to avoid these “bad” trigger situations.
- eating noises, like scraping utensils on plate
- smacking of lips
- chewing with mouth open
- drinking noises — slurping, saying “ah” after a drink, swallowing, the noise of setting a cup down
- Teeth hitting silverware
The triggers aren’t only with eating or drinking, however. They include other types of bodily noise:
- gum chewing
- kissing sounds
- teeth brushing
- loud breathing
- speaking sounds, such as the “s” or sibilance
- certain speaking voices
Misophonia is tricky because it means “hatred of sound,” but that is just the tip of the iceberg, the disorder can branch out with visual triggers that are that cause anticipatory anxiety:
- jaw moving, chewing
- hands touching face
- leg movement
- rubbing feet together
- hair twirling
- putting food into mouth
- drumming fingers or pen
- eyes blinking
So, misophonia sufferers can have just auditory triggers, or (like me) can have a combination of both auditory and visual. In some rare cases, sufferers may also have triggers of odor (certain scents), feel (touching certain fabrics), and vibrations (bass thumping, heavy footsteps, chair kicking) that can create the same sort of emotions, such as disgust, anger, and panic.
Reactions to Triggers
Certain stimulus can trigger neurological and physiological responses in the sufferers’ body that are meant to protect them from danger. Being triggered feels a lot like fight or flight mode, also known as an acute stress response. The same panic and fear overcomes you. Your body is ready to stop the trigger at all costs.
The stress that such an episode has on your body is real: cortisone and adrenaline pumping through your system. It can cause unpleasant physical tension in shoulders, jaw, neck, fists, and in some rare cases a tingling sensation. I sometimes get chills down my spine when faced with a trigger. There is also the violent ideation some sufferers get during an attack, fantasizing of using violence on someone because of a trigger.
Don’t worry — although we imagine punching you in the face, we have no intention of carrying it out.
I’ll never forget my first misophonia trigger. I was probably around 11 years old and taking a test during school. There was a girl next to me that was chewing gum. She wasn’t being necessarily loud with her chewing—in fact, it’s likely that no one else noticed it except for me. It was quiet in the classroom and all at once — like a shift happened in my brain — one moment I was normal and the next moment the gum-chewing was the only noise that I could hear. A river of rage tore through me. I glared at her and tried to discreetly plug my ears. I saw her happy as can be, jaw moving up and down and her lips open as she chewed — the source of the sound, and my first visual trigger. From there, my irritation and rage just increased. From that first onset of misophonia, the disorder seemed to spread from just chewing gum sounds to a multitude of other triggers.
According to The Misophonia Institute, triggers sometimes “key in” on one person. Unfortunately for me, my mother, one of my favorite people in the world, was that trigger person for me with almost everything she did: the way she chewed, her cough, her sneezes, the rhythmic way she rubbed her feet together, and repetitive way she would pick up and set down her cup as she drank her iced tea. There are times where I would get triggered just seeing her make her lunch.
Because of this, I wasn’t able to eat in the same room as my own mom for nearly 10 years after my onset of misophonia. Our relationship suffered, even though she has always been very understanding of the disorder. It’s not you, it’s me, I would constantly explain.
From childhood to my teenage years, I reacted badly to triggers: yelling, freaking out, running off to my room and slamming my door, the whole shebang. This caused a lot of shame. Being an otherwise calm and self-controlled child, it was confusing that I would go from 0 to 60 in less than a few seconds, just from a little noise or movement. I reacted by isolating myself to just stay in my quiet place.
This type of behavior is called avoidance. I would opt out of going to family dinners, usually eating meals in my room, or not being able to go to the movie theaters because of the crunching of popcorn around me. It made me feel very isolated and alone. I thought I was just a major control freak, it made me feel crazy, and it became a source of anxiety and depression.
As a teenager, I understood that I couldn’t keep living this isolated life to avoid noises, and I made more of an effort to control myself and the disorder. Instead of hiding away and avoiding the problem, I would go to the dinner—but never without my secret weapon: earplugs. I managed to always have a pair on hand, stashed away in my purse. I would go to the movies with my sisters, but I would be hiding the earplugs beneath my hair. That muffled the eating noises, but unfortunately, it muted the movie too.
During mealtimes, my security was having headphones on with loud-enough music. People around me were all very supportive, but I still felt isolated and obviously different wearing my headphones at the dinner table.
As an adult, it became obvious that I needed better ways of coping. I couldn’t react badly at work because of a noise. I had to learn to swallow my anger. I’ve learned to be angry on the inside while doing my best to appear calm outwardly. I try to cope by breathing and reminding myself that it is just a noise, and although it’s uncomfortable, it can’t hurt me. This wasn’t always successful and it made some work days full of anxiety.
On the not-so-successful days, the anger would overflow and I would come off as snappy and rude to my coworker—in their eyes, it was for no apparent reason. I felt pathetic for hating certain people simply based on the way they sipped their coffee in the break room.
However, I think the painful exposure to these noises at work helped me, in the long run, to adjust my responses later on. During this time, I was finally able to go out to a meal with my mother.
Even though there is no known cure for this condition, as of yet, there are a few techniques that misophonia sufferers have tried that made their suffering more bearable, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Modified Tinnitus Retraining Therapy. Both of these techniques have been shown to be effective in some misophonia cases, but in the absence of effective medical therapy for misophonia, we have to rely heavily on coping skills to manage the worst of our condition.
Coping Skills That Work
Here are some techniques I have learned throughout the years to improve everyday life as a person with misophonia:
Use white noise
There are a multitude of free apps that help generate this static noise, or a more fan-type of noise called brown noise that you can play that almost completely drowns out background noise. This helps me when noises keep me from sleeping, or when the noise is too loud for just regular earplugs.
Get yourself some earplugs at your local drugstore and keep them in your pocket at all times. They are lifesavers. You will find that you will need these less and less as you learn to manage your condition, but keep them available. I still pull them out once a week. Sometimes I will still sneak out an earplug and put it in an ear during dinner if it becomes too much.
Having headphones with you is another must. I don’t leave the house without them. When it’s appropriate, pull out your headphones, put on your favorite music, and relax. Music is amazing therapy not only for blocking the triggering stimuli, but for the magic in how a favorite song can distract and calm you down.
Headsets at the theater
This is something I just recently found out about. When you’re at the theater, you can go to the front desk and ask for headphones for the hearing impaired. Theaters usually offer these to the public for free. The sound is directly from the movie, and it helps create a buffer between your ears and the old guy chewing popcorn behind you.
Imagine yourself in their shoes
This tip is kind of vague, but this is what I try to do with my boyfriend when he is eating loudly: I try to imagine how much he is enjoying his food. I try to understand that this person is not always conscious of my condition, even if they’re aware of it, and that they are just going about their lives.
This one takes practice and a lot of patience and understanding on your part.
Leave and breathe
When you can’t take it anymore and you feel like you’re either A) going to explode on the person or B) leave the room, I suggest you make an excuse to leave the room. My tried and true trick is to pretend like I need to use the bathroom. It’s a good break from the noise to calm yourself and then prepare to get back into it.
Explain it to people
This one is embarrassing and the hardest for me to do. I usually don’t tell anyone about my misophonia, out of fear of being judged, but as time goes on, I realize it is a part of me that I shouldn’t be ashamed of. I try to explain how noise affects me to people that I trust, so that they can at least be aware of it, whether it changes the outcome or not.
Talk to someone. Get an appointment with a counselor or a therapist. Sometimes just being able to talk about your struggles is enough to ease the anxiety and fear of being misunderstood.
Join a forum
Realize you are a part of a whole community of people who are rooting for you. There are a multitude of forums made specifically for misophonia sufferers to offer encouragement and share our tips and tricks with each other, along with just sharing stories and being able to relate is so helpful.
What Doesn’t Work
This tends to be the least effective tool for people with misophonia, though non-sufferers commonly assume differently. Telling someone with misophonia to “sit here while I eat this bag of chips” will only make their triggers worse, trust me. People who are not professionals implementing their own idea of how to “cure” the misophonia sufferer will only further agitate and possibly traumatize the person, especially if that person is a child.
On the other hand, when you are in control of the amount the exposure, you can take small steps to desensitize yourself to the triggers. Growth is when you decide not to immediately reach for those earplugs—if it’s not too unbearable, that is. Allow the trigger and sensations to wash over you. If you can distract your brain long enough, the sound will be over and thus the reaction no longer imminent. Take baby steps toward desensitizing yourself to these triggers if you experiment with exposure.
Yelling and running out of the room seems appropriate to do when you have all that adrenaline and the stress hormone, cortisol, double-dosed in your veins. Sometimes it’s not a matter of thought. Sometimes you react and think after, but it’s obvious that giving into the impulsive feeling only causes more harm than good. I know this because relationships in my family were tested when I let the beast in me come out during my misophonia episodes.
Giving into the disorder caused a lot of fights, and in turn a lot of shameful apologies for me. It was like going from Hulk to human. It’s sometimes a part of learning how to cope with the anger and rage—I can’t even count how many misophonia-induced post-freakout apologies I’ve done. Work with those better solutions above instead.
Avoiding triggers is a very obvious way to cope with misophonia. No triggers, no stress. I did this for many years. I wouldn’t want to face my problems and would just avoid them by spending as much time as I could in my room. This led to me feeling more isolated, depressed, and actually worsened the severity of my triggers when I did finally leave the safety of my room.
I spent many years of my life just thinking something was wrong with me. You don’t have to feel ashamed of who you are. You have misophonia, but that’s not your fault. It’s no one’s fault. You are only responsible for how you react.
Beyond Coping Skills
If you have a suspicion that you may be suffering from this disorder, talk to a doctor. There are also some free and simple tests to diagnose yourself online. In fact, most cases of misophonia are self-diagnosed.
Sufferers of this rare condition should find solace in knowing that we are not alone. At least 20% of the population may have some degree of misophonia. There are quite a few celebrities that have been very open about their struggle with misophonia, such as Kelly Ripa and Kelly Osbourne.
Since this disorder is so misunderstood (but seems to be more common than we previously realized), there are a number of medical and scientific studies being done to understand what happens to the brain during a misophonia episode. There is hope that someday we will be able to find a cure and fully coexist in this world full of triggers.
I know sometimes it feels like you are alone in this condition, but take it from me, you are not alone and coping is possible. It’s been 14 years since I’ve been actively coping with misophonia, and take it from me: it gets easier.