Imagine if any sound associated with eating – crunching, swallowing, slurping, even plain ol’ chewing – sent you into either a panic or rage. Imagine if it tormented you to the point where you dread social events that revolve around food. Then imagine how hard it would be to keep from throwing your hands over your ears and running out of the room screaming, or trying to explain logically why other people’s eating noises drive you to distraction, but your own sounds don’t. (And imagine how much weight you can gain eating whenever anyone else does, just to mask the sounds.)
For me, it started when I was about 10, and it’s been a pain in the ass my whole life…more so as I matured enough to realize that other people weren’t doing anything wrong. That’s when I started thinking I was crazy. But earlier this year I stumbled across an article that changed my whole outlook. I’m far from the only person plagued by this sound sensitivity; it has a name, and it has an actual neurological basis. It hasn’t really changed anything, but I’ve stopped trying so hard to hide it or to offer a logical explanation when I can’t hide it.
Misophonia literally means “hatred of sounds”. For most people, it revolves around eating sounds, but some people have the same reaction to pens clicking, knuckles cracking, etc. Some people are even triggered by sight (seeing someone chew gum bugs me as much as hearing it). And it’s way beyond irritation. It’s an actual triggering of the neurological fight-or-flight reflex: either do whatever it takes to make it stop, or escape. According to misophonia.com, “The response has been described as a reflexive emotional flood of rage and panic with a storm of fight-or-flight reactions becoming paramount. Adrenaline flooding, face flushing, heart-pounding and/or shaking and the need to physically flee or attack are often experienced. The mindful thoughts that the emotional reflex/response is unreasonable given the facts of the stimulus is often actually harmless come only after the fight-or-flight response is in full force and the affected person may find themselves in a constant mode of “talking themselves down” into a normal state of calm…When asked how they feel, a sufferer will often detail the tremendous levels of guilt and turmoil they feel due to their reaction, their fear of an ever collapsing tolerance and the ever increasing restrictions imposed on them by the condition.”
I’m not a neurologist, so the scientific explanations are way over my head. Basically, your auditory system is normal, but it’s abnormally linked to your limbic system, the part of your brain that regulates emotion. So popping gum triggers the same reaction that a charging tiger would. It may have some sort of evolutionary benefit – like the way many women have a strong emotional reaction to a crying baby – but that’s really not much comfort. There’s no real “fix,” either – some doctors recommend cognitive behavior therapy to gradually desensitize their patients, but other studies suggest that could actually make things worse. In the meantime, a lot of people wear headphones, play lots of white noise, and (like me) studiously avoid movie theaters (popcorn chomping) except for times when they’re likely to be practically empty.
Misophonia is no fun. There’s not a single day when I don’t have to make some sort of adjustment to avoid the sounds that make me nuts. Thankfully, knowing that there’s an actual physiological reason for my “quirkiness” makes me feel like less of a controlling, intolerant b*tch. But I don’t like feeling like a victim, either…I’m just not wired that way. So my goal for 2014 is to continue working on a matter-of-fact, it-is-what-it-is approach that allows me to maintain my sanity while inconveniencing the people in my life as little as possible. And if any of this sounds like you, I encourage you to read up on it. It won’t fix anything, but it will change the way you see yourself.