Misophonia: how ‘healthy anger’ destroys relationships and forces people to move home Life and style

AAs a teenager, I remember being moved almost to tears by the sound of a family member chewing granola. A friend who ate dumplings once forced me to flee the room. The noises a former roommate makes chewing popcorn mean I’ve turned down their movie invites for nearly 20 years.

I’m not proud of myself for reacting like this – in fact, I’m quite embarrassed – but my reactions feel inevitable. I probably have misophonia. So does 18% of people in the UK, according to a forthcoming scientific paper from King’s College London.

Misophonia, also known as “sound rage,” is “a reduced tolerance to certain sounds,” says Dr 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 volume of the sound or necessarily the acoustic pattern”, but what it means to the observer. Eating sounds are the most commonly reported, followed closely by so-called guttural sounds. (Gregory is soothed by the sound of pigeons.)

Close-up of man eating toast
Eating noises are the most commonly reported triggers of misophonia. Photo: Daniel Day/Getty Images

“Chewing, grinding, snorting, sniffing, throat clearing, nose whistling, heavy breathing,” rattles Dr. “These are all relatively normal everyday things that people have to do, but they are perceived as very aversive by people with misophonia.”

That “aversive response” can take the form of physical changes such as increased muscle tone or heart rate, or emotional reactions such as irritability, embarrassment and fear. It triggers a fight, flight or even a freeze response where, according to Gregory, “you get a really strong adrenaline response and it tells you you’re in danger or you’re being violated.”

According to the King’s College London paper, only about 14% of the UK population is aware of misophonia. Perhaps one of the reasons, Gregory 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 keeping yourself alive — repels me.’ It’s really hard to find a polite way to say that.” Perhaps the movie Tár will help: the main character, played by Cate Blanchett, reacts extremely to the sound of a metronome.

Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tar
Pushed to the limit… Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár. Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features

Theories of how misophonia develops are just that. “A lot of people say they’ve always been a little sensitive to sound, but then they remember a time when it suddenly got a lot worse,” says Gregory. Rosenthal says it usually presents in late childhood or early teens and is often associated with family members. “People ask me all the time, ‘Why my family? Why my parents?’” The statement feels reassuringly logical: “You don’t blame, you don’t judge — you were probably the closest thing to them.”

You may have clocked a sibling eating baked beans, and once you notice, your brain starts looking forward to it. Rosenthal describes the vortex: “It starts to get aversive and then I pay more attention to it, and the more attention I pay to it, the more I notice it, and the more I notice it, the more aversive it becomes…”

The impact can be serious. Gregory knows of relationships that have ended because of misophonia; she has met people who have moved several times to escape triggering neighbors. Others have to choose careers based on where they can work without being bothered by noises. “If you don’t get a reprieve from it, you can get desperate,” she says.

However, strategies can help, such as introducing background noise while eating. Gregory’s husband, who knows better than eating Monster Munch at home, can tell if she’s bothered by a noise, as she’ll suddenly yell, “Siri, play Taylor Swift!”

Sometimes running away is the best option. Gregory then suggests “slowing down your breathing, or just giving your mind some work,” like playing a game for a minute. By the time you re-enter the room, the noise may be gone, or you may feel more rested, “because you know what’s coming.”

She also recommends “contrary action — this idea that the more we avoid or block something, the more harmful it feels to us.” At CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy], we do the opposite of what you want.” In this vein, she tries to fight her instinct to glare at her husband, instead staring at him in admiration: “It’s a way of tripping your brain and saying remember you love this person, remember that you’re not really in danger.” .”

I’ll make a note to try this the next time I hear someone eating scrambled eggs.

This article was modified on January 27, 2023. Dr. Jane Gregory contributed to King’s College London’s scientific paper on misophonia, not the other way around as an earlier draft suggested. In addition, the article was published in “pre-print” format only; the peer-reviewed version has yet to be published.

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