WATCH ABOVE: Has the sound of someone chomping away on their food ever made your skin crawl? You may have what’s called misophonia, a sound sensitivity disorder that one expert says is more common than OCD. Trish Kozicka explains.
TORONTO — Crunching, lip smacking, slurping and loud breathing: these are just some of the sounds that can send a misophonia sufferer into a murderous rage.
Catherine Taylor, who doesn’t go anywhere without her earplugs, has about 30 trigger sounds she considers to be “the worst offenders.” Many of them are associated with eating. All are common noises, which the B.C. woman realizes most people can easily tune out. For her, though, they’re like nails on a chalkboard.
“It’s like having knives in my ears. I just want the sound to stop.”
“Co-workers can sometimes be triggers. And it’s harder, I think, to deal with that in the workplace. It’s not so easy to say, ‘Hey, can you stop doing that? It’s really annoying me.'”
In severe cases, people who suffer from the selective sound sensitivity known as misophonia will quit their jobs because of it. Others may actually divorce. Taylor explains it can be a very isolating disorder, one that can carry a lot of guilt.
“Guilt for being difficult on family members who are making the offending sounds, guilt for appearing ‘nasty or mean’ when asking them to stop making the sounds, guilt for sometimes having to physically isolate yourself from loved ones to avoid hearing the sounds. It’s a very stressful and often lonely way to live.”
What makes it even harder is that misophonia is not very well known yet throughout the medical community. Yet it appears to be more common than you may think.
“It’s an unknown disorder, but it’s a really hidden epidemic because the prevalence, I think, is pretty high,” said Amsterdam-based psychiatrist Damiaan Denys, who co-authored the first paper in psychiatry on misophonia in 2013.
“My impression is that it’s more prevalent than Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.”
OCD occurs in about one to two per cent of the population.
How misophonia starts
According to Denys, in roughly 50 to 60 per cent of cases, misophonia starts when a person is between the ages of nine to 13 and sitting at the dinner table with parents. And suddenly, the sound of their eating becomes unbearable.
The founder of the Misophonia Support Group on Facebook, Mark Taylor, was roughly 10 when he experienced this.
“I remember my parents were eating and smacking their lips. I kind of felt like a volcano wanting to erupt. I feel terrible talking about my parents like this. But I was drinking a glass of Coke, and I was getting so enraged to the point where I actually ended up biting through the glass.”
Denys thinks it might have something to do with puberty.
“I think it’s maybe the first time people want to be their own and they, for some reason, get annoyed by the rules of the home situation, the family situation with the dad and the mom being ‘masters’ of the family, and you have to listen and so on.
“So it might have to do something with building your own identity; But that’s just the beginning of the disorder; it doesn’t disappear when puberty is finished. It goes on and on and on.”
He believes there’s a genetic and neurobiological component to the disorder, as well.
The three criteria for misophonia
1. Being obsessed with a particular (usually human) sound.
“In 80 per cent of the cases,” Denys said, “it has to do with eating, sounds made with the mouth.”
2. Aggressive urge.
“It’s uncontrollable; people are afraid they will lose control…hit someone, kill someone, hit someone with whatever, stab them with a knife…But it rarely happens. We have met a few patients who will have slapped someone in the face, but that’s it.”
“They avoid people and circumstances where they may hear the sounds; even their partner or parents,” said Denys.
This part is especially important, he explained, because it demonstrates the high burden that misophonia can be to patients.
“We all recognize becoming irritated when we hear someone eating crisps, for example. But this is a real disorder. These people really avoid lots of things. They are unable to have a normal life. Sometimes they move to other places, they quit their job, they divorce and so on.”
Treatment for misophonia
There’s currently no medication to treat misophonia. Some specialists, including Denys, recommend cognitive behavioural therapy. The method includes exposing misophonia sufferers to the sounds they have an aversion to so they can eventually cope with them.
WATCH: Denys explains how cognitive behavioural therapy is being used to help treat misophonia.
The biggest obstacle for patients right now may be that not everyone in the medical profession is yet aware of the condition. Denys is working on changing that. He hopes to have the disorder included in the next (sixth) edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
According to Denys’ 2013 paper, “diagnostic criteria could help to officially recognize the patients and the disorder, improve its identification by professional health carers, and encourage scientific research.”
Misophonia sufferers, like Taylor, hope more awareness will lead to less judgment.
“We can’t help feeling the way we feel.”
For more information on misophonia and to take a “self test” for the disorder, you can go to Misophonia.com.