For most of us, sitting down to a family meal is a bonding experience – a time to relax and enjoy each other’s company. For those with a rare disorder called misophonia however, the idea of such a meal inspires feelings of fear and anxiety.
People suffering from misophonia have an intense dislike of certain noises, known as ‘trigger sounds’, and respond with anger, stress and sometimes even violent rage. Typical trigger sounds include eating noises, pen clicking, typing and tapping. Interestingly the feeling of stress and aggression is often amplified when the sounds come from those close to the sufferer, such as family members.
Meredith Rosol is a teacher who was diagnosed with misophonia two years ago,
“I haven’t eaten with my parents, at least without earplugs, in over a decade. I was six years old, and it started with my parents chewing at the dinner table.”
Her list of triggers has since grown to include heavy breathing, cutlery clinking and foot shuffling. Meredith describes it as a fight or flight response, saying her heart races and she feels tense and on edge.
The term misophonia was coined in 2000 and means ‘hatred of sound’. The term was created to describe those who hated certain sounds, but were not afraid of them (those who are afraid of certain sounds are known as phonophobic). While the term itself is relatively new, people have been describing its symptoms for years.
Currently no one knows what causes the condition, so deciphering a treatment plan has been difficult. Experts do seem to agree however that misophonia isn’t so much about the actual sounds themselves, but rather their context.
“Sometimes their responses are localised around certain people: they might be bothered by their mother’s chewing but not their brother’s.”
Says Miren Edelstein from the University of California at San Diego. As part of a small study into misophonia, Edelstein found that the fight or flight response only occurred in certain situations. For example, those with the condition didn’t mind their own chewing or typing, or sounds made by babies and animals.
So, if the response doesn’t come from the noises themselves, where does it come from? Dr Natan Bauman from the Hearing, Balance and Speech Centre in Connecticut believes it is a learnt conditioned response. He believes that at some point the sufferer made a negative association with certain sounds and so have an impulsive reaction to them. It is also thought to have something to do with the way the brain processes sounds.
Regardless of the cause, the condition can make life very difficult for the sufferer. Sadly there is no known cure for misophonia, however several treatment options are emerging – including cognitive behavioural therapy, hypnotherapy and in-ear devices that emit white noise.