“What were you saying?” I ask through gritted teeth.
I’m trying hard to listen as my friend recounts his weekend over breakfast. But as he crunches into another piece of (seemingly never ending) vegemite toast, an overwhelming feeling of rage surges through me. When I start to hear the sound of the sourdough moistly rolling around in his half-open mouth, God help me I want nothing more than to grab the chair he’s sitting on and smash it over his head.
No, I’m not a violent criminal, nor am I in anger management. I merely suffer from misophonia – a condition where people are consumed by intense rage, anger or disgust by everyday sounds.
I take a deep breath, fiddle with the table and try and tune out the deafening sound of him eating. It feels like he is literally millimetres away from my ears, chewing directly into my brain. Can the neighbours hear? Surely, they must be able to. He swallows and relief washes over me. I tune back into the conversation and smile. He reaches for his tea. Oh no. Please no, please don-
“OH MY GOD”
Recently coined and largely unstudied, misophonia is only just being recognised by scientists around the world. It can be triggered by a range of sounds, from “mouthy” sounds (that I so detest) such as chewing, eating, lick smacking or slurping to other sounds such as sniffing, throat-clearing, knuckle cracking, nail clipping, tapping, pen clicking or even humming. The feeling these sounds trigger is difficult to describe other than irrational, overwhelming rage and desire to stop the source or flee – flight or fight. On Reddit, it’s aptly named “the urge to fucking murder someone”. Other accounts describe it as “indescribable rage and agony”, “the urge to swing at the people I love the most” or “excruciatingly unbearable”.
Here are some of the most common triggers (courtesy of Radio National). For those sufferers, try not to punch clean through your laptop.
When I initially heard about the condition, the first thing I felt was a wave of relief. For years, I had half-joked about my hatred of people chewing, but was secretly terrified by this secret dark side – the apparent desire to murder my friends and family whenever they chewed too loudly. One of the most frustrating things about having misophonia is the “incredulity factor” as Dr Lerner coined it – how incredible it seems that no-one else around you is getting upset over the same sounds.
“How is this not physically destroying every fibre of your being?”
But like most things, it exists on a spectrum. Luckily for me, it rarely bothers me apart from the occasional loud chewer in a quiet environment. The worst thing I’ve done is walk out of a room or beg my friend to please-for-the-love-of-god stop eating her deafening chips excruciatingly slowly in the movies.
For others though, it’s seriously debilitating. There have been reports of people leaving jobs because of panic attacks in open plan offices, or people having to wear earplugs and constantly move carriages on public transport or even permanently eat in separate rooms because of the noise of their partner chewing is simply too much. For some, it is an ever-present problem plaguing them in most social scenarios – something that deeply horrifies me. One case from an early study found one person had even considered suicide.
The condition is new to the scientific world though. Until very recently, scientists remained highly skeptical of the condition, merely believing some people were a tad over sensitive to annoying sounds. But they soon found that while everyone is annoyed by loud chewers, those with misophonia were alone in their extraordinary fury.
A recent study in Current Biology is finally piecing together the mystery though. They invited 20 people with misophonia and 22 people without it into the lab and played them three sets of sounds – trigger noises (eating, breathing, drinking water), normal irritating noises (screaming, babies crying) and neutral sounds (rain). When scientists played the sounds while scanning their brains, those with misophonia showed no difference to the control group when hearing normal irritating noises such as the baby crying. But when they heard their trigger noises, their heart rate skyrocketed and they started to sweat – a response not dissimilar to extreme anxiety. Interestingly, the trigger sounds also stimulated the anterior insular cortex – the part of the brain that joins our emotions to our senses. Some research has suggested that misophonia symptoms are linked to anxiety, depression or OCD, but the research was not conclusive. Other scientists have called for it to be diagnosed as a new psychiatric condition on the OCD spectrum – although other scientists have called this ludicrous.
Either way, there’s no obvious treatment either apart from learning to manage it. Some people resort to earphones or music or to simply leave the room. But one study by Monica Wu did successfully treat two patients using cognitive behavioural therapy – a proven form of psychotherapy which helps patients manage uncomfortable or distressing thoughts. People have long employed “mimicry” where they chew in sync with the other person to drown out the noise. Another study found desensitisation therapy significantly improved 83% of sufferers. But the condition is still relatively new and scientists are still catching up, meaning many of the studies are merely observational.
For now, just knowing others have it and it’s more than a mere quirky (and scary) character trait is a comfort for many. But for those who are battling with severe misophonia, there is definitely help available by going to a psychologist or psychiatrist.
For me? I’ll just continue to kindly ask my friends to buy quiet snacks before we go to the movies. It’s for their own safety after all.