Not Every Problem is a Disease

One of the more interesting things I encounter from time to time is people who tell me that certain sounds make them feel uncomfortable and angry. A bit of research introduced me to the term “misophonia”: a debilitating situation where a “trigger stimulus” (some sort of sound) becomes intolerable and generates feelings of rage. The sufferer endures mental anguish until he or she escapes from the sound.

The word misophonia was new to me, though I am familiar with a similar term, hyperacusis. Whatever you call it, it’s a very real problem for some people. When I tell clients that there is actually a name for what they’re feeling, they are immensely relieved that “it’s not just me.” That gratification is a good thing, but it’s also important to remember that the validity of something is not proven simply by reference to the experiences of others. “Others” can be wrong, and often are.

It’s premature to label this as a “condition” rather than a psychological phenomenon. To call it a condition suggests that it’s a biological dysfunction that a pill or surgery will cure. I can find no scientific evidence that misophonia is a biological or physical condition.

Interestingly, when I say that to a client, they often reply, “You’re denying the existence of my annoyance.” But I’m not. I truly believe that they are annoyed by noises that don’t bother most people. But at the same time, there’s no empirical basis for transforming this annoyance into a medical condition. This is the same intellectual confusion (or dishonesty) at work with much of psychiatric labeling. Psychiatric conditions are usually descriptive in nature, i.e., various behavior patterns such as “oppositional defiant disorder” (ODD), “attention deficit disorder” (ADD) and a host of other important-sounding acronyms. Even bipolar manic-depression, where objective differences can be found in a person on medication versus off medication, contains intervening psychological variables.

Sadly, rushing to label something as a disease is good politics. Politics determines much of what passes for “science” today, since most research is supported by government grants. This isn’t to deny that any given scientist might indeed be concerned only with the science, but the fact remains that many projects receive funding only if they’re deemed “worthy for society” by some congressman or presidential administration. Many powerful people – huge drug companies come to mind – have a vested, financial interest in prematurely labeling things “conditions.”

Yes, it’s good to have a name for something, but it’s also psychologically healthy to remember that there’s no basis for making it one’s entire identity. In the case of hyperacusis, I suggest that the client avoid trigger situations that are easy to avoid. For example, some people don’t like the noises they hear around them in movie theaters, so they purchase a nice entertainment system and enjoy their movies at home. It makes sense to take advantage of every opportunity to avoid things that get on your nerves.

At the same time, it makes no sense to avoid everything on principle. When something is worth the price of putting up with the noise, baby steps can help to desensitize oneself over time.

A website dedicated to misophonia states that sufferers are often “forced into a life of isolation, shrinking away from the general population … not by choice but out of necessity for their sanity. …Often relationships are destroyed due to misunderstandings and misdirected negativity.” Good grief! This attitude of helplessness doesn’t do anyone any good. To say these people have no choices is ridiculous. Yes, perhaps there is an as-yet unknown sensitivity in the hearing. But, as the website clearly states, at this point there is no medical diagnosis or cure.

Is telling people they’re helpless any better than suggesting they take responsibility for deciding what’s worth it to them? Seems obvious that the only professional help that makes sense is to encourage people to better manage their daily lives.