Can’t stand certain sounds? How misophonia can impact your day

New research shows misophonia is more common than previously thought. So, what exactly is it? And what can you do if you think you may have it?

If you had to name a sound that you don’t particularly like, there’d probably be a few candidates on the list, right?

Nails being dragged down a blackboard is a safe bet.

But for people with misophonia – which literally means “hatred or dislike of sound” – some common sounds are capable of triggering a much more intense reaction, whether it’s an emotional response such as anger, fear or disgust, or a physical one, including an increased heart rate, sweating or goosebumps.

Behavioural responses, including needing to escape when the sound in question occurs or yelling at who or what made the sound, are possible too.

“The experience of misophonia is more than just being annoyed by a sound,” clinical psychologist and University of Oxford research fellow Dr Jane Gregory says.

Dr Gregory, senior author of a new UK study, says the condition can trigger “feelings of helplessness and being trapped when people can’t get away from an unpleasant sound.”

The study found that nearly one in five people are living with misophonia, and many people may not realise they have it.

Why do some people have trigger sounds?

According to a 2021 study, the brains of people who suffer from misophonia are wired slightly differently.

While misophonia had previously been considered a disorder of sound processing, the research showed that alongside this, there is abnormal communication between different brain regions, which the researchers describe as a “supersensitised connection”.

What causes some people to have this supersensitised connection isn’t yet clear.

Which sounds are problematic in misophonia?

Hearing other people chewing is one of them – in fact, it’s often hating the sound of chewing that’s most commonly associated with misophonia.

But research conducted recently at Ohio State University in the US shows it’s more complex than that.

Specifically, it showed that patterns of brain connectivity in people with misophonia are different depending on which noise acts as their trigger – for example, chewing compared with repetitive finger tapping.

“We have actual evidence in the brain of people disliking sounds that aren’t just from the mouth and face,” lead study author Heather Hansen says.

“This takes us one step closer to understanding the multitude of ways that misophonia might present itself.

“It is affirming to people who don’t experience misophonia from chewing but do have it for other repetitive noises.”

So, as well as chewing and other “facial” noises, such as heavy breathing, lip smacking and nose blowing, other common trigger sounds for misophonia include a clicking pen, water dripping, a clock ticking and rustling of paper or plastic, as well as tapping fingers or toes.

How to get help for misophonia

If you suspect you might be living with misophonia, it’s important to think about whether – and how – it’s affecting your day-to-day life, bearing in mind that reactions to trigger sounds can be more or less severe.

In the most severe cases of misophonia, people may not be able to do certain activities or be in specific environments.

“Often those with misophonia feel bad about themselves for reacting the way they do, especially when they are responding to sounds made by loved ones,” Dr Gregory says.

While mental health therapies can’t cure misophonia, they can help to identify triggers and find ways to minimise exposure to those sounds, as well as develop coping strategies to avoid impulsive reactions and reduce sound sensitivity.

Experts agree that more research is required to understand both what causes misophonia and the best action to take to help people who suffer from it.

If you think you may have misophonia and find it’s impacting your lifestyle or relationships, talk to your GP.

Written by Karen Fittall.