“Daaaaaaaad, stop humming! Waaaaaah!”
I remember these distressing episodes very well, which also happened with whistling, and various other sounds. Coming from a kid, this can be dismissed as being capricious, or controlling, whatever. My parents were all right and indulged me… especially after my doctor, bless the man, said my weird outbursts should be tolerated and allowed to peter out on their own.
But as an adult, when you have no idea why benign sounds are driving you up the wall, it can be guilt-inducing and cause a lot of tense situations. Who wants to feel angry for no apparent good reason? Was I evil or a friggin’ princess!? Well, no. It’s misophonia.
So, what is this misophonia I speak of?
Wikipedia is ever helpful, describing it as a “rarely diagnosed disorder, commonly thought to be of neurological origin, in which negative emotions (anger, flight, hatred, disgust) are triggered by specific sounds. The sounds can be loud or soft. The term was coined by American neuroscientists Pawel Jastreboff and Margaret Jastreboff and is sometimes referred to as selective sound sensitivity syndrome.”
Okay. But what I found even more helpful was the Symptoms section, which reads:
“People who have misophonia are most commonly angered by specific sounds, such as slurping, throat-clearing, nail-clipping, chewing, drinking, tooth-brushing, breathing, sniffing, talking, sneezing, yawning, walking, gum-chewing or popping, laughing, snoring, swallowing, gulping, typing, coughing, humming, whistling, singing, certain consonants, or repetitive sounds. Sufferers experience fight/flight symptoms such as sweating, muscle tension, and quickened heartbeat. There have been some anecdotal reports of unwanted sexual arousal. Some are also affected by visual stimuli, such as repetitive foot or body movements, fidgeting, or movement they observe out of the corners of their eyes. Intense anxiety and avoidance behaviour often develops, which can lead to decreased socialization. Some people feel the compulsion to mimic what they hear or see. Mimicry is an automatic, non-conscious, and social phenomenon. It has a palliative aspect, making the sufferer feel better. The act of mimicry can elicit compassion and empathy, which ameliorates and lessens hostility, competition, and opposition. There is also a biological basis for how mimicry reduces the suffering from a trigger.”
Echolalia, anyone? On the mimicry front, I’ve found that imitating the irritating stimuli can indeed help make it less overwhelming. For example, I’ll imitate the sound someone is making, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes intentionally. Or, if someone is tapping their foot at the dinner table, I’ll tap my foot at the same rhythm. Mimicry helps me cope; it feels a bit like cancelling out the effect.
Also, I encourage you to read the following article from the New York Times, which is quite well-written, and contains a number of real-life examples (and a few tips for the misophonic!): Misophonia: When a Chomp or a Slurp Is a Trigger for Outrage.
Judging from numerous online conversations on the subject over this past year, it seems misophonia is common for autistic people (and often combined with hyperacousis).
It’s quite a relief to know that it’s physiological and that so many people have a similar reaction. Knowing why it happens helps to deal with it much better – I can ask for accommodation, or echo the noise, make a matching sound to cancel it out, put in my earplugs, or walk away for a break, whatever helps.
It’s much healthier than getting all angry or panicky, without knowing why (because really, until you know, who wants to explain their anger with how annoying a sound is, it’s ridiculous, right?).
Asking for accommodation is risky. Before I knew the issue was neurological, I received a lot of negative reactions from insulted people who just didn’t get why they should stop chewing gum or making another repetitive sound “just because it annoyed me”, and I get that. Sometimes explaining weirdness just doesn’t work. But with people who know and understand, it can be worth taking a chance. Case in point:
One day in the beginning of our relationship, my partner was kissing me noisily, and I couldn’t stop laughing. Kiss, nervous giggle. Kiss, nervous giggle. After a while, I explained that the high-pitched kissing sound he made was driving me up the wall! Love the kissing, strong reaction to the “smack” sound.
Because he’s lovely, he understood and we have a great time kissing now – quietly.
I wouldn’t have known how to explain this before, or to ask for accommodation, all the more because misophonia can seem so ridiculous when you don’t know any better. It was one of those “knowledge is power, and sometimes, knowledge is love” moments, when learning about the way your body works makes for better understanding all around.
Any comments welcome, I do special requests, too. Just please don’t hum the song 😉
Update (October 11, 2017): A research paper published in Current Biology on February 2nd, 2017 describes the imprint of misophonia in the human brain. In short, this is the material proof of its neurological basis. Full article: The Brain Basis for Misophonia (http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(16)31530-5).