Most of us can identify at least one or two people in our lives who have an aversion to a common, everyday sound. It may be an aunt who cannot stand to hear other people chew, a sibling who complains when other people breathe, or a grandparent who covers their ears the minute that they hear a windshield wiper on a rainy day. Although these individuals may be perceived as difficult, wacky, or challenging, they may actually be displaying symptoms of a misphonia, or selective sound sensitivity syndrome.
A misphonia is an extreme aversion or hatred of certain sounds that can cause a strong emotional or psychological reaction. These responses are commonly perceived as disproportionate to the actual situation. Individuals who have a misphonia are likely to verbalize that a certain sound drives them insane. Reactions can vary in severity from person to person, as some may display mere signs of irritation and anger, while others may experience acute anxiety and attempt to escape. Individuals with misphonia may sometimes have a reaction to repetitive movements or visual stimuli that are linked with certain sounds.
People with a misphonia are set off by specific sounds that are a part of our everyday landscape. People may be upset by the sounds of someone eating, breathing, typing on a keyboard, or tapping their fingers against a table. The disorder can cause either a mild reaction or a more severe response. Symptoms of a mild reaction can include anxiety, discomfort, an urge to escape, and feelings of disgust. Symptoms of a more severe reaction may include fury, loathing, panic, or overall emotional duress.
Research has been inconclusive regarding the exact cause of misphonia, but research is conclusive that it has nothing to do with hearing or ear problems. The medical community generally contends that misphonia is attributed to both physical and mental causes, especially in the way that sound impacts the brain and correlates with physical responses in the body. Individuals with misphonia may sort sounds differently and be highly sensitive to the repetitive nature of certain sounds. This repetition may intensify other auditory processing difficulties that may be present. Other research suggests that there is a disturbance in the way that the brain connects and processes sound, the importance of sound, and the fight and flight response.
It is unknown when misphonia actually develops, but symptoms are believed to begin during the pre-teenage years. Misphonia is somewhat more common in girls than in boys, has a quick onset, and is not triggered by one particular event. Misphonia is often misdiagnosed, as it can be incorrectly diagnosed as an anxiety or mood disorder. Other practitioners are not well versed in the condition and thus, have difficulties diagnosing and classifying it.
Misphonia can be distressing and negatively impact a person’s daily functioning, but can be treated and effectively managed. Treatment usually consists of an audiologist conducting sound therapy while a mental health clinician provides psychotherapy to help a person to improve coping mechanisms. Some individuals may utilize headsets, ear plugs, or white noise hearing aids to detract and blunt sounds and reactions.
Perhaps your eccentric aunt who complains about others chewing at the dinner table, your kooky sibling grumbling when oxygen is inhaled in their presence, and your zany grandparent who cannot tolerate the swish, swish sound of wipers in a rainstorm aren’t as outlandish and crazy as originally thought. Instead, these individuals may actually be afflicted by symptoms of misphonia and experiencing true distress. Of course, we cannot stop chewing, breathing, or using windshield wipers, but we can try to exercise some patience and show some compassion for them and their struggles.
Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.