What is misophonia?

Everyone dislikes some sounds. Whether it is nails on a chalkboard, a burp, hearing someone slurp their drink loudly, or hearing someone chew with their mouth open, there are sounds most of us classify as rude and inconsiderate. The sounds don’t necessarily have to be loud or “hurt” your ears; they may just be impolite or gross. But for some people, the sounds are more than irritating. They are disgusting and should be stopped. A person may find himself focusing on the sounds, becoming angry, unreasonable, and uncontrolled. Someone with misophonia, even though they realize their actions and thoughts are irrational, still wonders why no one else is disturbed by the sounds. Why can’t other people be as considerate as I am? What is it about chewing gum? Is the whole world crazy?

The difference between most people and those with misophonia is that some normal, everyday sounds are not just mildly irritating and not worthy of attention — they are intensified, right-in-your-face obnoxious, and over time they may become painful because they never stop, because many times there is no escape, and because there’s no control over either the sound or one’s reaction to it. So irritation becomes disgust, disgust becomes anger, and anger may become fear.

Identification and treatment groundwork

A handful of professionals in various disciplines (among them psychiatry, psychology, and audiology) have been laying groundwork on the identification and treatment of misophonia. Current research suggests that misophonia is caused by “enhanced connections between the autonomic and limbic systems and the central auditory processing network,” which identifies and intensifies specific sounds, creating negative associations with those sounds, which then cause anxiety and anger. It’s a survival mechanism in the brain that is somewhat misdirected.

Imagine yourself at home at about 6:30 in the evening, expecting someone (spouse, parent, or friend) to walk in at any moment. Imagine that this happens almost every day at about the same time. When that person arrives, you hear a key in the door, the door opens, and you hear footsteps at the door. No alarm bells go off, and maybe on some days you don’t even hear it happening because you’re so used to it.

Now, listen to the exact same sounds — a key in the door, the door opening, and footsteps at the door. The difference is that it is 3:30 am. Your reaction is TOTALLY different. You are fully awake, your heart is pounding, and you listen closely to determine what is happening and what you should do next. Your life may be in danger. This reaction is to keep you alive.

The problem with someone with misophonia is that they have that same reaction all the time to normal sounds. Sounds that could, in the extreme, be irritating, but it doesn’t have to be in the extreme for someone with misophonia to react in this way. And it happens daily — at home, at work, at school. There is no escaping these sounds. Sometimes isolation doesn’t even work.

Mis-diagnosis in children

Since misophonia usually starts surfacing between the ages of 8 and 14, a child with misophonia is thought to be difficult because of their age. They’re just being a kid. But while misophonia looks like an uncooperative child, it is a child in turmoil, a child with a condition that, without professional and knowledgeable help, will continue on this path and, in all likelihood, will become worse. They are not making it up. They are not imagining it. While it is known by only a few and understood by even less, misophonia is real, and there is help.

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