What is misophonia - could you suffer from this condition?

Believe it or not, it is possible to have a severe allergic reaction to a specific sound. We talk to a sufferer of this little-known condition.

If people slurping up their dinner, crunching loudly on an apple or messily cramming cereal into their mouths makes your ears feel like they are screaming, you might not be overreacting.

In fact, you might suffer from misophonia, a condition whose name translates literally as “hatred of sound”.

However, don’t jump to conclusions. Not appreciating nails on a blackboard or the nasty scrape of ice in the freezer doesn’t mean you’re suffering from the rare condition – most people hate those sounds.

Misophonia sufferers instead react violently, experiencing extreme anxiety, stress and even rage, to everyday ‘trigger’ sounds like people eating, loud typing, colleagues sniffing and heels clacking on the street.

[Read more: Are you making yourself deaf? 5 surprising causes of hearing loss?

We spoke to Tom who suffers from misophonia and set up online support website, Allergic To Sound, to help others.

When did you first realise your aversion to certain sounds wasn't something the majority of people experienced?

"I was about 8 or 9 when I first realised that there was something was wrong with me. It’s very confusing as a child, because you have no idea what’s going on.

"You might be a naturally calm, relaxed person in every other way, but when you hear a trigger sound, your mind instantly floods with rage and panic and you can’t focus on anything else.  

"When I was little, I thought that everyone felt this way and that the triggers were the fault of other people – that they were making these unbearable sounds and that they were the problem.

"But as I got older, I began to realise that no one else was reacting to these sounds in the same way. In fact, they weren’t reacting at all, they weren’t even flinching.

"At this point I started to think, “Hang on, if no-one else is bothered by these noises, then maybe I’m the problem”.

"In some ways, that was actually a bit of a relief, that realisation they weren’t doing it on purpose or trying to hurt me. At the same time, it’s lonely and alienating because you don’t know why it’s happening to you."

How did you find a name for what you were dealing with?

"I only found out misophonia had a name in 2014. A friend of mind was doing a PhD in synaesthesia and sent me a link to an article about an area she was specialising in which discussed a possible link between synaesthesia (confusion of the senses) and misophonia. That’s when I saw a description of misophonia.

"It was like a light bulb being switched on in my head – I knew that’s what I had instantly, because it described me word for word. I stayed up all night researching it and trying to learn more about the condition."

Why do you think GPs often struggle to recognise misophonia?

"I’ve been living with misophonia for 25 years, but I only found out it had a name 18 months ago – so I can understand why most GPs might have never even heard of it.

"A great deal more research needs to be done into the condition because it's still relatively unknown. That’s one of the problems.

"Because it's such an unusual condition you don’t know who to approach or how to approach it in the first place.

"You feel ashamed and confused. How do you describe something like that to a doctor? I think it’s commonly diagnosed as a form of OCD or anxiety because people display stress-like symptoms."

How do you manage the condition?

"You learn little coping mechanisms over the years. Nothing I’ve come across to date actually lessens the intensity of an episode, but you can manage how you react to it.

"You get good at finding ways of subtly covering your ears to block out the noise. Headphones are a misophone’s best friend, but obviously that’s not always practical, particularly at meal times or at work.

"If it’s really bad and I can’t cope, I’ll excuse myself and go to the bathroom and just sit there and calm down.  

"I’ve also got good at predicting people’s behaviour. People have routines and if I know someone’s about to have a noisy snack, I’ll try and time it so that I’ll be in a different part of the room or doing something else.

"On public transport, I’ll try to move away from the source of the noise.

"When I absolutely can’t get away, I try to have a constant dialogue in my head and rationalise the situation: "This person isn’t doing it to hurt me... I just need to get through the next few minutes."

It doesn’t lessen the intensity of the experience – it’s a bit like having a shouting match in your head – but I’d rather try to fight against it however futile it seems. Hating someone intensely in that moment for something they haven’t done wrong is a horrible feeling.

[Read more: 5 tips for dealing with a noisy home – and noisy neighbours]

What advice would you give to other people who think they might have the condition?

"Start reading up on it and talk to other people with misophonia who understand first hand what you’re going through. That’s why I set up Allergic to Sound, to help people learn more about it and share their experiences in a safe and friendly environment.

"It sounds like a small thing, but just that realisation that you’re not alone and not losing the plot really helps.

"If you do decide to tell a close family member or a loved one, reassure them that your aversion to sounds has nothing to do with them. Give them space and let them come to you with questions.

"I personally wouldn’t recommend telling all your friends and colleagues you have misophonia, because it can change the dynamic of your relationships.

"You don’t want people to be on edge all the time around you, thinking that they can’t eat or make certain noises around you."

Find out more about misophonia and connect with other sufferers at allergictosound.com.

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