‘Can You Hear That?’ When Is Sensitivity To Sound Something More Serious?

What is misophonia? Why does nobody talk about it? And, how do you know if you have it?Illustration by Marja De Sanctis

'Can You Hear That?' When Is Sensitivity To Sound Something More Serious?

by Vicky Spratt |
Published on

‘Can you hear that?’

‘What?’

‘That person sitting three rows in front of us is listening to the new Skepta album so loudly I can’t deal.’

‘Vicky. What? I literally can’t hear anything.’

‘It’s track 3, Con on the Curb, now. How can you not hear it.’

Since I was a child I’ve thought there was something wrong with me. Not in the way that everyone thinks there’s something a bit weird about themselves, after all we’re all a bit wrong up close aren’t we. No, I’ve been convinced that I’m an intolerant, overly sensitive and sometimes bad tempered person who can’t function in environments that other people seem to get along just fine in.

It began when I was about 12 and I would have to leave the table during dinner with my family and eat, alone, in the kitchen. I found the sound of people eating combined with the clatter of cutlery making contact with ceramic plates too much to bear. I spent years eating by myself. At school exam halls were my nemesis. I really noticed it at university, I could never ever study in the library. I would hear people’s pens moving across paper, feel every stroke of a keyboard and, even, find myself shuddering at the sound of some people’s particular breathing rhythms. If there’s someone eating crisps on the top deck of the bus I’m with them, through every single crunch and crackle of the packet. I’ve been known to change seats and, even, get off of buses and wait for another.

My parents used to call me ‘elephant ears’ because I can also often hear conversations perfectly, even if there is a thick wall between me and the people having it. Having such an acute sensitivity to sound has, at times, been a bonus. For a while I worked at the BBC in radio and it meant that I could fish out every inappropriate background noise, um and ah in an edit to create the kind of flawless finish that you’re used to hearing on the likes of Radio 4. I am also something of a human Shazaam when it comes to identifying background music in pars and pubs.

But, on the whole it’s been a hinderance. It has also, undeniably, affected my relationships particularly with my family but also, at times, with my partner.

The best way to describe how sounds make me feel is a heady combination of furious and anxious. I can feel my brain twitch and my fists clench when a noise triggers me, it’s not only frustrating it can also be quite upsetting. It leaves me completely unable to focus.

Over time I’ve tried to train myself in how to cope with the everyday cacophony of sounds I routinely encounter, assuming that I’m just overly sensitive. I have noise cancelling headphones, do important things in quiet places and try to breathe through my reactions whenever I get them. I never really complained because that felt totally unreasonable, after all, rationally I know that people can’t help but make noise when performing everyday tasks. The torture in my head, however, the urge to flee when it gets overwhelming is very real.

In my last rented flat I found myself looking over the precipice of my sanity, unable to sleep because I could hear the nearby motorway so clearly. My other housemates, however, seemed completely fine with the constant hum. I felt as though the cars were driving right through me.

Oddly, I find working in very noisy environments OK because I can tune out of specific sounds but if it’s semi quiet and I can hear specific noises sometimes I find it so overwhelming that I have to go outside. I also enjoy very loud music in clubs and busy cafes where the din is exciting, no one conversation or crockery clang being more distinguishable than another.

Misophonia: what is it?

I’d never ever considered the possibility that what I experience could actually be a medical condition, let alone thought to seek help for it. A few months ago, however, a friend said she thought I could possibly have something called ‘misophonia’.

Upon googling it I discovered that it is, indeed, a thing, albeit it relatively under-studied and little-known. What I experience seemed to tick most of the symptom boxed and, after reading about other people’s experiences, I realised that if I do have misophonia I’m actually very fortunate and suffer from it relatively mildly.

At one point, when I was working in a busy newsroom, I found the combination of noises I experienced daily so overwhelming that I embarked on an integrated therapies course of CBT and meditation in an attempt to overcome it. However, it never occurred to me to go to my GP.

Ingrid Collins is a Consultant Psychologist at the London Medical Centre on Harley Street. She explained to me that misophonia literally means ‘hatred of sound’. It is a ‘neurologically based affliction that causes sufferers extreme emotional and physiological distress because of their hypersensitivity to specific everyday sounds’ she says. We’re talking about anything from chewing, yawning and finger tapping to scraping along a surface, water dripping, crinkling or popping plastic, as well as larger, more amplified sounds.’

For those affected, she says, this causes ‘significant discomfort in reaction to such an extent that it can significantly affect their social lives and intimate relationships.’

So why haven’t we heard much about misophonia? Ingrid says that it is a little known condition ‘rare enough not to have come to the attention of the media at large and the general population’ which contributes to the feeling that sufferers have that they are alone in their condition.

She says that particularly severe cases are often misdiagnosed because ‘it is sometimes one of the symptoms of people falling within the autistic spectrum, but misophonia is often a condition on its own right.’

Misophonia: causes

What causes misophonia? Is it psychological or physiological? Ingird explains that it is thought to be a ‘neurological dysfunction, but very little research has been carried out. It affects the autonomic arousal system – commonly called the fight-or-flight reaction, which is why sufferers tend to either isolate themselves socially or appear rather aggressive in company.’

She points out that everyone can be distracted in a noisy environment but stresses that those who suffer from misophonia suffer from extremes, ‘people who live below the regular flight path to an airport famously are unaware of the constant airport noise because their brains have become acclimatised after a while; the sound of one’s spouse snoring contentedly at night when one is desperately trying to get to sleep has the potential to cause enormous irritation; a television programme can go unnoticed when one is reading a very absorbing book or article. For most of us, it is simply a matter of tuning out the unwanted noise and choosing to hone in on the sound on which we wish to focus and most of the population is lucky enough to have a robust-enough nervous system to cope with these everyday challenges, unlike the misophonia sufferer whose neurological constitution has far less resistance.’

This rings true with me, there are days when I feel overwhelmed because I simply can’t tune out. It becomes exhausting and draining. And, by all accounts, it seems that, if I do suffer from misophonia, mine is relatively mild in comparison to some. I wouldn’t wish to belittle some of the personal accounts I have read on support groups because, for whatever reason and through whatever means, I have found a way of managing mine.

If you suffer, or think you might be suffering, from misophonia, what can you do? Ingrid says that ‘there are a growing number of research papers. The first step is to surf the internet, read up on the condition and understand that there are other sufferers, as many believe they are the only one suffering from this condition. To realise that the person is not alone is in itself a relief and therefore therapeutic. The technique of Tinnitus Training Therapy has often been helpful for specifically coping with misophonia, and hypnotherapy is also a very useful tool in offering the opportunity to educate the brain to react in a calmer and less dramatic way, toning down the physiological and emotional reactions to the offending sound stimuli.’

So, to those who can’t tune out, no matter how much they’d like to, you’re not alone and it’s not your fault.

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Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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