Pen clicking. A simple act of boredom when your fingers can’t find anything else to do. An annoying habit to some, an unforgivable crime and cause for multiple fits of rage to others. Why? Because it can trigger a very specific sensory condition called misophonia. Perceived as more than just a little irritation when someone taps their foot in line, misophonia can cause extreme blow ups over sounds that don’t bother most people.
It’s not unusual to feel the burning glare of someone else’s eyes on you when you tap your fingers against the table one too many times. The dreaded embarrassment as you quietly retreat and try to find another (more silent) way to fidget is a godsend to someone with misophonia. Although the condition only grips a small number of people, between 6 to 20 per cent, its effects are anything but miniscule.
So, to all the people who hate ASMR—and find it horrible and repulsive to hear people even breathe up close—I feel your pain. But why does the sound of simply chewing—with a recent study claiming ‘loud chewing’ to be the most hated one—send people into a blind rage sometimes, and why exactly does it affect some more than others?
There are a lot of eye roll-inducing sounds that make us wince, like someone chewing loudly at the dinner table. However, misophonia is more than just a tiny grimace.
The term, also known as selective sound sensitivity syndrome, relates to a condition in which individuals can experience intense negative emotions caused by specific sounds. These emotional and psychological reactions are abnormally strong and cause feelings of extreme panic, anxiety and rage. This often translates to anger and disgust when they are confronted with sounds made by other human beings. The National Health Service (NHS) explains the triggers of the condition as “if some sounds make you angry,” coupled with phonophobia (when sounds make you anxious)—like the dreaded Microsoft Teams call that sends your heart racing.
Though a lifelong condition, symptoms of misophonia usually develop around the age of 12 or 13. It is more common in girls but there is no evidence that the condition is caused by a specific event in their childhood.
Now, you may be thinking that this condition doesn’t actually ‘exist’ and that it’s “all in your head.” I mean, haven’t we all wanted to kick the kid who used to click their pen during class tests? And most people will say chewing out loud is rude and a sign of bad manners—something that, understandably, is also considered to be an annoyance. But what is the difference between a common annoyance and chewing being one of the many triggers of misophonia?
For starters, misophonia causes extreme and intense distress, discomfort and irrational rage over sounds. Some people purposely try to avoid such triggers, while others face difficulties in completing daily tasks due to the anxiety induced around certain sounds. According to NYU professor Doctor Barron Lerner, misophonia is “awful—like your blood is starting to boil.” The condition comes with an array of physical sensations like “heart racing and stomach-ache,” he told Healthline.
Doctor Hashir Aazh, an audiologist and specialist in tinnitus misophonia rehabilitation has spoken at length about the condition. Aazah runs a private tinnitus clinic in Surrey and his upcoming book, Misophonia and Hyperacusis: Neuro-Psycho-Audiological Perspectives, details accounts his patients shared about the emotional turmoil that comes with the medical problem.
“I remember that I often stormed out of the room to eat my dinner on my own. As one would expect, my behaviours and words often offended my parents and started further arguments and unhappiness within our family,” a patient recounted.
It also has a profound effect on the relationships of those who have it. In an article featured on Refinery 29, Sammy Jones stated how her misophonia, caused by loud music, ruined some of her relationships with ex-boyfriends. She also shared the experiences of others with misophonia and how it impacted their interpersonal relationships. “It got to the point where I thought of him as disgusting, even though he wasn’t a disgusting person.” one person told Jones while another one said, “If I could explain properly what it feels like—an instantaneous flick over to rage—then it would be taken more seriously, I think.”
Misophonia only got its name a few years ago as many doctors are still unaware it even exists and it is still yet to be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The condition is often confused with symptoms of other mood disorders, such as ADHD and autism due to its characterisation and sensory nature. While many do indeed suffer with anxiety or depression alongside misophonia, that isn’t always the case. There is still a lot of debate on whether it should be considered its own disorder or not—however, a 2019 research study published in Nature showed misophonia is associated with altered brain activity.
Though there isn’t significant waves of research being made about the condition, there are researchers who are dedicated to finding out more about it. Doctor Marsha Johnson, an audiologist in Portland who specialises in misophonia was one of the first to identify it after she noticed how some of her young patients had symptoms that could not be easily categorised as hearing difficulties or other psychological problems. Speaking to NPR, Johnson explained, “They were perfectly developing normal kids until the certain period of time from like 7 or 8 years old through about 13 or 14—and mostly girls.”
The term selective sound sensitivity syndrome was originally coined by Johnson in 1999, who has since then admitted she has issues with the name misophonia, used after a paper published in 2001 describing decreased sound tolerance seemed to touch upon the same condition. Since misophonia means ‘hatred of sound’, it isn’t entirely accurate to the symptoms those who have it experience. “It’s like a tsunami of negative responses” and “most of these people don’t hate sound; they only hate particular sounds,” she said.
Alongside her research into the area, Johnson has also created a network, The Misophonia Association, to aid people impacted by misophonia and connect them with psychologists and therapists. The non-profit organisation was founded in 2013 after the first Misophonia Convention ever was held in Portland and completed research into the condition as well as possible ways of diagnosing the issue like the Duke Misophonia Questionnaire.
Largely, according to Johnson and other specialists, “the problem is, the whole field currently lies undefined,” although the outcome of a study completed by the University of Newcastle published in the Journal of Neuroscience may offer some more insight into what is really happening inside the minds of those who have misophonia. Lead author Sukhbinder Kumar, said of the study, “Our findings indicate that for people with misophonia there is abnormal communication between the auditory and motor brain regions—you could describe it as a ‘supersensitized connection’.”
Many people with misophonia describe it as sounds that drive them crazy and are triggered by oral sounds (from themselves and others) such as chewing, breathing, slurping, burping, eating—even the faintest lip-smacking sound someone makes when they talk can get under their skin.
Any sound could trigger the condition, especially daily/mundane sounds that most people are unaffected by—for me it’s knuckle cracking and crunchy crisp packets. Windshield wipers, styrofoam, keyboard clicking and even the sound of rustling clothes appear on my list. Some people with the condition are also particularly affected by visual stimulation that occurs alongside these triggers, such as repetitive motions. According to WebMD, “Researchers believe that those with misophonia may already have issues with how their brains filter sounds and that one of the features of ‘misophonic sounds’ may be their repetitive noise. That repetition then exacerbates the other auditory processing problems.”
While treatment options for the newly recognised condition are still limited, there are ways to understand why they occur, how to avoid certain triggers and thus make it easier to cope with them. Many resort to wearing earplugs to help with their sound sensitivity—with some wearing noise-cancelling headphones or playing music to drown out triggers.
In an interview with The Independent, Doctor Aazah said, “A specialised version of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help the individual to minimise the stress caused by their initial reaction to the trigger sounds and stop from escalating to a level that damages their quality of life.” Researchers such as Kumar have said that “some people with misophonia can lessen their symptoms by mimicking the action generating the trigger sound, which might indicate restoring a sense of control. Using this knowledge may help us develop new therapies for people with the condition.”
TikTok, though not always a trustworthy medical resource, has allowed people with the condition to find community with one another. With #misophoniagang and #misophoniaawareness having thousands of videos attached to them, the video-sharing app has allowed for people to find others just like them who have difficulty with the disorder.
The community has chronicled its journeys with misophonia and the struggles members encounter, as well as providing helpful tips to handle their triggers and become more comfortable in triggering social situations—while also managing to find humour in the condition. One creator, Lindsay, has used the app to talk about her condition as well as the progress she made in dealing with it through therapy.
The world and all of its sounds can be distracting, distressing and downright annoying at times. So instead of judging that friend that always blows up over small noises or gets at you for chewing ‘too loudly’ next to them, try to be a bit more considerate. Patience and understanding from those around a person suffering with misophonia is key and crucial to helping them get through it.
On the 25 October, across the UK, citizens will begin the day with a harmonised melancholic cry bidding farewell to our most cherished summer. As the second lockdown is in motion, experts recommend taking a bath, listening to music and using mental health apps like Talkspace, Headspace or Better Health to defuse the winter blues. But what about people in severe cases? Could singing bowls be the answer?
“During making the album, I was reading a book called Sacred Sounds that just explains how the different sounds and different vowels resonate with the chakra system,” states Jhene Aiko in a Nylon interview, where she discussed her new album, which incorporates a singing bowl on every track.
The re-emerging popularisation of singing bowls hit mainstream media earlier this year when model Indira Scott proudly debuted hers on British Vogue, then SZA posed with her vibrant collection for Wonderland’s Spring issue and quite recently gained momentum when Aiko performed on the NPR Tiny Desk earlier this month, surrounded by them. Its budding interest has led to a new hashtag on Instagram #SoundHealing where people post their bowls with heartfelt messages, while other adopters on TikTok go the extra mile in showing just how versatile they are, with one user previously sharing Kegel exercises to the rhythm of her singing bowl before her videos were deleted. So, what is a sound bowl (or bath) and how does it classify as meditative therapy?
Singing bowls are types of idiophones, which is said to be one of the most ancient artisan crafts produced for medicinal and musical purposes. Traditionally made and shaped out of pure copper, ‘Tibetan’ bowls are estimated to be over 2,000 years old. When struck, scraped or shaken, they exude either a delicate tone or deep full-body vibrations. Its indistinguishable tones vary depending on the size, circumference or material of the bowl, but regardless of such, guarantees an immersive experience.
When singing bowls first migrated into the western culture, they gained admiration in wellness and health practices. So much so that it’s not uncommon to start a yoga class with the teacher playing it in the background, or book into a studio and see sound bath sessions being offered. A sound bath is essentially a mediation class encouraging clients to sit on a pillow or lie down on a mat and engage in breathwork while absorbing the chimes of the sound bowl penetrating the air—falling into a deep sleep is also considered a deep meditative state in those circumstances. It’s generally recommended to those who struggle to calm their thoughts in mediation.
“The wellness juggernaut has been intersecting with music in ever more interesting ways,” says Sandra Ballentine in her recent feature for W Magazine. Within it, she examines whether attending a sound bath or exploring mindful breathing techniques exude the same euphoric reaction gained from attending festivals and in short, it does.
Similarly, in 2016, researchers at the University of California found that “meditation aided by Tibetan bowls noticeably decreased stress and anger—especially among people who were new to this kind of practice.” There are many types of music therapy, and while some lean more towards spirituality: like singing bowls, root frequency entrainment and tune forking; others are more scientific.
Music therapy charity Nordoff-Robbins uses a technique that aims to help children with developmental disabilities by teaching them to create music as a form of therapy. Another one called vibroacoustic therapy requires the person to lay down on a special bed where speakers are strategically placed around, so the sounds and vibrations penetrate on a deep cellular level. It’s typically used to help patients recovering from cancer and strokes.
Lastly, the most favoured form of sound therapy, especially by pregnant women, consists of whale sounds. Unborn babies exposed to music while in the womb have shown significant improvement in their overall mental, sensory, psychological, behavioural and emotional development, according to Healthline. Ultimately, each practice shares the same common ground in which sounds are the basis for healing and development.
Cost and accessibility also factor in deciding which method to apply. The scientific treatments need full commitment both financially and time, while sound bowls and tune forking can be booked by sessions on Insight Timer, a free app that showcases the words and lessons of high profile spiritual teachers such as Mooji, Sarah Blondin and even Gisele Bündchen. The options are endless but with experts already predicting mental health to be at an all high during this second lockdown, why not consider sound therapy as another healing tool?