Misophonia: When sounds really do make you “crazy”

James Cartreine, PhD
James Cartreine, PhD, Contributing Editor

You hear your spouse breathing nearby and you instantly get angry. Your 6-year-old yawns and it triggers a fight-or-flight reaction in you. You avoid restaurants because you can’t stand the sound of chewing. Sounds other people don’t even seem to notice, drive you up a wall. You might have misophonia.

What is misophonia?

People with misophonia are affected emotionally by common sounds — usually those made by others, and usually ones that other people don’t pay attention to. The examples above (breathing, yawning, or chewing) create a fight-or-flight response that triggers anger and a desire to escape. This disorder is little studied and we don’t know how common it is. It affects some worse than others and can lead to isolation, as people suffering from this condition try to avoid these trigger sounds. People who have misophonia often feel embarrassed and don’t mention it to healthcare providers — and often healthcare providers haven’t heard of it anyway. Nonetheless, it is a real disorder and one that seriously compromises functioning, socializing, and ultimately mental health. Misophonia usually appears around age 12, and likely affects more people than we realize.

What causes misophonia?

New research has started to identify causes for misophonia. A British-based research team studied 20 adults with misophonia and 22 without it. They all rated the unpleasantness of different sounds, including common trigger sounds (eating and breathing), universally disturbing sounds (of babies crying and people screaming), and neutral sounds (such as rain). As expected, persons with misophonia rated the trigger sounds of eating and breathing as highly disturbing while those without it did not. Both groups rated the unpleasantness of babies crying and people screaming about the same, as they did the neutral sounds. This confirmed that the misophonic persons were far more affected by specific trigger sounds, but don’t differ much from others regarding other types of sounds.

The researchers also noted that persons with misophonia showed much greater physiological signs of stress (increased sweat and heart rate) to the trigger sounds of eating and breathing than those without it. No significant difference was found between the groups for the neutral sounds or the disturbing sounds of a baby crying or people screaming.

The brain science of misophonia

The team’s important finding was in a part of the brain that plays a role both in anger and in integrating outside inputs (such as sounds) with inputs from organs such as the heart and lungs: the anterior insular cortex (AIC). Using fMRI scans to measure brain activity, the researchers found that the AIC caused much more activity in other parts of the brain during the trigger sounds for those with misophonia than for the control group. Specifically, the parts of the brain responsible for long-term memories, fear, and other emotions were activated. This makes sense, since people with misophonia have strong emotional reactions to common sounds; more importantly, it demonstrates that these parts of the brain are the ones responsible for the experience of misophonia.

The researchers also used whole-brain MRI scans to map participants’ brains and found that people with misophonia have higher amounts of myelination. Myelin is a fatty substance that wraps around nerve cells in the brain to provide electrical insulation, like the insulation on a wire. It’s not known if the extra myelin is a cause or an effect of misophonia and its triggering of other brain areas.

There is some good news

Misophonia clinics exist throughout the US and elsewhere, and treatments such as auditory distraction (with white noise or headphones) and cognitive behavioral therapy have shown some success in improving functioning. For more information, contact the Misophonia Association.

Comments:

  1. Sofia

    I remember when I was in kindergarten way back when, i would scold people at my table for chewing out loud. I would poke them and say, you are chewing with your mouth open, can you stop? And they would stop. Recently we did this test and i wanted to kill somone because the amount of trigger noises that they were making. Of course im normal now but omg, that was some blood boiling stuff.

  2. Ellen McCall

    Loud music and constant bass. Is that this condition or just reacting to unnecessary noise? Upsetting, but then so is breathing in cigarette smoke when you know it’s unhealthy and smelly.

    • Bea

      Ellen, I think that’s just you reacting to an overwhelming noise. Do you know about the term “sensory overload”? It seems to me that may be what you’re experiencing. Especially if your main complete is the loudness of the noise, I don’t think misophonia is the appropriate conclusion to make. Typically, a very small and underwhelming noise that most people overlook is a trigger for those with misophonia (e.g. breathing, chewing, yawning, sniffling).

  3. Beth D.

    The sound of birds’ incessant chirping in the Spring makes me nuts. I dread the month of April because they start at 3:00 a.m. and continuously chirp until late morning. I have to wear earplugs. When their eggs hatch in May, I cannot stand the noise of the babies screeching for food – again it starts at the crack of dawn. I cannot wait until July when they are gone. I actually feel stressed, angry and irritable until they are gone.

  4. Helen

    I am curious if whistling would be considered a trigger for someone with misphonia. My reaction to whistling is flight, and if that is not possible my ears. I immediately get agitated and angry.

    • Sarah S.

      Whistling is my trigger. It brings up instant rage. I’ve had to make major changes in my life to avoid whistlers in a shared work environment. Whistlers selfishly ruin the environment, demanding attention and notice with their stupid noise, and preventing others from working in peace.

  5. Kate M. Sherman

    A couple of questions:
    1) Is this diagnosis in the DSM and/or covered by insurance?
    2) What is the comorbidity with major mental illnesses? Might it be part of the reason why someone who is manic or psychotic has an episode of agitation?
    3) Any citations about misophonia from scholarly journals?
    Thank you.

  6. Birdnscrap

    Antidepressants of the SSRI type have helped me with this problem. My daughter has it to. Thanks for helping us explain it to our loved ones, so they don’t think we’re nuts or that we hate them. We can’t help it and wouldn’t choose it either!

  7. Don't Honk At Dev

    I’ll highlight two ways it has most impacted my life. First off, sleeping arrangements when traveling are a major consideration and created some awkward situations . More than one Gracious host with a ticking clock in their guest rooms have been offended and thought I’m insane when I try to explain why I’m going to a hotel.
    Secondly and more troubling are the volatile and potentially violent situations created by certain loud noises. While otherwise never a violent or confrontational guy, I’m usually good for at least two car horn confrontations a year, normally in parking garages. Doesnt matter if I’m in a good mood/ bad mood or if it’s even directed at me, anything more than 2 loud consecutive blaring of a horn in my proximity, I run the risk of having a truly uncontrolled response of getting out of my car to start. That same person could have called me every name in the book and peed on my front lawn and I wouldn’t even consider fighting them but loud car horns turns me into a drunken sailor. Interesting side not, that even after I’ve chilled out, for some reason I still feel a certain justification in my behavior even though i know it’s totally uncontrolled and unacceptable behavior.

    • Bea

      For me, even THINKING about the sound makes me undeniably want to pick up a heavy object and slam it repeatedly onto somebody’s head until they pass out. It’s unnerving that I could even possibly think it, but it’s uncontrollable. I’ve never acted on these thoughts, and I pray to God I never will. But for now, they consume my thoughts all day everyday, ESPECIALLY when my main trigger is the breathing of someone who lives in my house and sleeps one door away.

  8. Amruta mahamuni

    thanks for sharing information and most important symptoms about misophonia.Nice Blog

  9. Angela

    I have had this issue for as long as I can remember, but never talked about it until my daughters developed the same problems. They are 15 and 14 now. My husband and 2 young sons find it difficult to eat in the same room with us because we shoot them looks or snap at them. It’s so ridiculous and not how we want to be, but it’s real. I avoid movie theaters because I can’t focus on the film of people are eating and I get irritated.

  10. Clare Turner

    My 13 year old son also suffers from this condition. He gets agressive and angry when trigger sounds are heard, and has been known to burst into tears at the sound of people eating.
    I’m trying to find help but it’s not readily available.

    • SonyBe

      Maybe try magnesium. Dr. Sircus and Dr. Carolyn Dean, author of The Magnesium Miracle mention that a magnesium deficiency can cause a sensivity to noise. Most of us are deficient and a magnesium irritability, anxiety and lots of other symptoms.

  11. Kim Judge

    So glad to see this issue in your publication, brings authenticity to those who suffer terribly from this awful condition. My 18 year old daughter has severe misophonia, started at age 4 with chewing being the main trigger. Around 11 years old, triggers multiplied and now breathing, sniffling, humming, and certain words affect her. She is very isolated by this condition, and it is so sad because her potential is so great, yet won’t be realized. If more research is being done , she would love to be participate if you need people.

    • dedee

      Hi Kim. My daughter is five and suffers from Misophonia. Started when she was just 18 mos. old. Have you tried different treatments for your daughter? What about medications?

    • Gerry

      Was your daughter able to go to school? I have a daughter who is now15 and it started at age of 13. She’s been home-schooled for the last two years. She really wants to go back to school but has a severe case, Sniffling sounds are her biggest Trigger, which happens all day long in classrooms. So desperate to find a solution for this