When Noises Drive You Mad

Dear Dr. Hurd:

Ever since I was a small child, the noises made by other people while they’re eating (specially loud swallowing) have driven me mad. They make me squirm and feel really uncomfortable and angry.

Doing a little bit of research I’ve found that this is a “condition” called Misophonia. I have to confess, it felt really good to have found this information because I no longer feel “it’s just me” and that I’m just a spoiled finicky brat.

My question to you is, do you know if is this a real condition or is it just another fibromyalgia (all in my head)?

Dr. Hurd’s reply:

A website called ‘Misophonia Online’ describes misophonia as ‘an often debilitating condition in which the person has a collapsed tolerance to normal every day stimuli, in particular, sounds. The triggered stimuli quickly become intolerable and often feelings of immense rage and disgust overcome the sufferer plunging them into states of mental anguish until either the offending stimulus is removed or they escape.’

I have never heard the term ‘misophonia’ until now, although I am familiar with the equivalent term, ‘hyperacusis.’ Whatever you label this, it’s a real problem for some people, yourself included as you well know. I recognize it can be gratifying to find out ‘it’s not just me.’ But try to remember that we don’t validate the truth or falsehood of something by reference to whether others have the same experience or not. A majority can be wrong, and often are.

It’s misleading to call something like this a condition. For one thing, it’s premature. It’s more accurate and intellectually honest to label it a psychological phenomenon. In other words, it’s something that happens in the personal/psychological experience of a number of people, for unknown (though not necessarily unknowable) reasons.

To call it a ‘condition’ rather than a phenomenon or experience is to imply there is a known biological dysfunction causing the problem which, once corrected, would eliminate the problem. Is there any evidence or proof that ‘misophonia’ is a biological condition caused (at least hypothetically) by certain neurological or other physical factors? Not to my knowledge, nor anywhere I could find in looking over descriptions of the condition.

You might reply to what I’m saying by claiming, ‘You’re denying the existence of my annoyance.’ But I’m not. If you are annoyed by noises that don’t appear to bother most people, I believe you. All I’m saying is that there isn’t any intellectual basis for converting this observation of a psychological phenomenon into a conclusion that it is a medical condition of some kind.

This is the same sort of intellectual confusion or dishonesty at work in much of the psychiatric establishment. Psychiatric conditions are usually descriptive in nature. ‘Oppositional defiant disorder’ (ODD) refers to a pattern of behavior and attitude whose origins could be due to any number of things, not only biological—and it might have nothing to do with biology at all. So why the misleading medical disease label? Even bipolar manic-depression, where objective differences can be found in a person on medication versus off medication, could involve intervening variables other than biological ones (e.g., a carry-over attempt to rationally adapt to an irrational childhood environment). And most psychiatric labels do not involve anything so clear-cut in their medical implications.

Rushing to label something a disease is good politics, and politics determines much of what passes for science today, since most scientific research is conducted with government grants. While it’s possible that any given scientist working under a government grant might only be concerned with science, no particular project will get funding unless initially deemed by some Congressman or presidential administration as ‘worthy for society.’ A lot of people have a vested interest in calling things conditions prematurely, or inaccurately, because—after all—how else is one to get research grants from the politicians who control the funds?

It’s good to have a name for something. I recognize that. Call your difficulty whatever you wish, but be sure to keep in mind that there’s no basis for making it your whole identity. If I were you, I’d avoid situations that are harmless to avoid. (The website I consulted advised against this, but I disagree.) For example, some people with hyperacusis I’ve talked to don’t like the noises they hear in movie theaters, so they purchase a nice home system and enjoy their movies at home instead. They dislike the crowds and noises in a grocery store at peak hours, so they go during quiet hours since it’s just as convenient (and much more comfortable) to do so. Why not take advantage of every opportunity you can afford to make life more pleasant for yourself, if you hate these noises?

At the same time, it obviously makes no sense to avoid everything on principle, because you will—or might—hear some noises that will get on your nerves. Take it case-by-case and decide what’s worth it to you, and what isn’t. When something is worth the price of putting up with the noise, then start with baby steps and try to desensitize yourself to the noises as much as you can.

Misophonia Online states: ‘Often a sufferer is forced into a life of isolation, shrinking away from the general population and the offending triggers, not by choice but out of necessity for their sanity. Many withdraw from social occasions due to the fear and anxiety caused that a trigger may be present. Often relationships are destroyed due to misunderstandings and misdirected negativity. Work opportunities are reduced or obliterated altogether.’

Good grief! This attitude of helplessness and hopelessness doesn’t do people any good. To say a person with misophonia has no choices is ridiculous. I understand the person with the difficulty does not actively choose to be annoyed. Perhaps there is a sensitivity in the hearing or some other cause as yet unknown. But even if there is a medical origin, there is surely no medical cure—as the website clearly states. Telling people they’re helpless stands in contrast to what I would say: Take responsibility for deciding what’s worth it to you, what isn’t, and tackle it case-by-case from there.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you should ‘get help’ for this problem. This implies there’s a medical solution when there is none, and there may never be since this is not necessarily a medical problem. The only professional help that would make sense here is help at helping yourself cope better with this.

Think of yourself as a sensitive hearer in a less than sensitive world. Wow, now that I think of it, that sounds like a lot of other issues to me—not just aversion to noise.


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