Most of us cringe at the sound of chalk scraping on a blackboard. But some people find even common sounds—a person chewing nearby, or the tap-tap-tap of a pen on a table—just as disturbing. The condition, first described in 2001, is called misophonia, which literally means “hatred of sound.” In sufferers, innocuous sounds trigger feelings of anxiety, disgust, and even anger.
Misophonia groups have their own Facebook pages and online forums. But researchers are still trying to define the condition and understand what causes it.
Sounds that trigger discomfort or rage
The symptoms of misophonia can range from mild discomfort to repulsion. To zero in on the condition, researchers have tried to create a working definition. One British approach uses an 11-point scale to describe the spectrum of symptoms of misophonia. Another, called the Amsterdam Misophonia Scale, includes seven criteria for diagnosing the condition. Common features include:
- Feeling discomfort at a particular sound or sounds made by other people that quickly intensifies to disgust or anger.
- A tendency to avoid being exposed to the sound by steering clear of certain situations, which in turn can begin to interfere with day-to-day activities.
- Feeling distressed and embarrassed by your reaction, but unable to change it.
People with misophonia typically aren’t bothered by trigger sounds when they make them themselves. In fact, some sufferers cope by mimicking an offending sound.
The symptoms usually begin at an early age. In a small study at the University of California, San Diego, researchers interviewed 11 adults with misophonia. Almost all of them reported that their symptoms began in childhood or the early teenage years. Common trigger sounds included eating, chewing, crunching, and lip smacking. Repetitive sounds, such as someone tapping a fingernail on a tabletop, were noted as particularly disturbing. Interestingly, most of the subjects reported that the sounds only bothered them when made by adults; comparable noises made by children or pets didn't trigger the negative response.
Searching for clues to misophonia
Researchers don’t yet know what causes misophonia. One guess is that people with the condition have abnormal connections between their auditory systems and the parts of the brain related to emotions.
Some studies suggest that misophonia may be linked to other disorders, such as Tourette’s syndrome, which involve sensory hyperawareness and feelings of distress. Misophonia may also be linked to tinnitus, which causes the sensation of ringing in the ears.
How to cope with misophonia
By studying the ways that people with misophonia cope, researchers are hoping to identify effective strategies for dealing with the condition. Among the most promising:
- Mimicking the offending sound to cancel it out
- Using earplugs or listening to music to cancel out the sound
- Focusing on other sounds
- Distracting yourself in other ways when exposed to the trigger sound
- Replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts when exposed to the trigger
Many misophonia sufferers find some relief in knowing that they aren’t alone. Several online forums, includingmisophonia.com and allergictosound.com, offer a place to share experiences and coping strategies.
If an aversion to common sounds is interfering with your life, ask your doctor to refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist who may be able to help.