A Perspective of Science and Emotion
Many of us wake up to an alarm bleeping in our ears and get ready for the day with the background noise of traffic outside, toilets flushing, and teeth brushing. Encountering silence is rare, as we are almost constantly encompassed by sound. Generally, we don’t view this a problem until face to face with sounds that we dislike. Famously, nails on a chalkboard or crushing of Styrofoam. We feel angry, annoyed and all we can think about is stopping the noise or getting as far away from it as possible. But, what if that reaction was so extreme that noises triggered fight or flight, rage, violent anger, sadness, and adverse physical reactions? And, those triggers were low profile, background noise that most of our brains filter out. That is misophonia.
Misophonics read and process sounds, visuals, and sometimes smells, differently to the ordinary person. Like how a synesthete will see colors in words, smell sounds, or see colors in music, senses for misophonics are thought to be cross-wired. Our auditory complex transfers trigger sounds to our limbic system, which regulates and sends messages of our emotions to the rest of our brain and body. When a trigger noise is red flagged, our limbic system goes into overdrive.1
In a study done by Dr. Kumar Sukhbinder at the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University, brain scans were taken of misophonic and healthy subjects. During the brain scans, the patients were presented with a range of noises ranging from neutral to triggering. In these brain scans, abnormalities in the misophonic brain wiring compared to the healthy patients. These studies are groundbreaking for the medical community as well as sufferers because it has now become recognized as a legitimate disorder. Now the diagnosis means something; although, there is still no cure. 2
From the brain scans of those who have misophonia, the scientists from the above study concluded that, “The most dominant reaction is anger and anxiety, not disgust,” expressed by Dr. Kumar.
This disorder that has been misunderstood for so long. In my experience of explaining misophonia to people, responses are like, “Oh, I hate that sound too; it’s so gross.” But misophonia is not just finding slurping gross, or someone’s open-mouth chewing disgusting, because all of that is an average human reaction to less than preferred eating manners. Misophonic reactions involve rage, violent thoughts, anxiety, frustration, fight or flight, heart palpitations, sweating, nausea, helplessness, and others.
As a misophonic of over 10 years, trying to compare the emotions felt after a trigger to any other situation in my life is impossible. The explosive and adverse reactions from misophonia triggers just don’t feel human. I have many memories of turning a fiery red color on the inside, running from a room with my hands over my ears, and going to a bathroom, or any room available to rock back and forth for what felt like an eternity.
I felt crazy, alone, and helpless. For years, I spent my time with my finger in one ear. In school, I would rest my head on my hand in class to disguise the fact that I was plugging one of my ears. It was all just so I could feel more relaxed and concentrate a bit better. During exams and the ACT, I plugged both ears while reading the questions, and then quickly filled in the appropriate bubble before plunging my finger back into my ear. Sometimes I would wiggle my finger to create noise inside my own ear. I must have looked ridiculous, but that was the only way.
Imagine a fire alarm being set in front of you and knowing that it would go off. You don’t know when it will go off, how often, and how loud or disruptive it will be. This is the level of anxiety and apprehension experienced by misophonia sufferers in most settings. We are constantly on guard for the next sound to trigger us. It’s like searching for Waldo constantly; it’s exhausting!
As soon as our ears catch a whiff of a trigger, it’s as if we’ve seen a patch of red and white out of the corner of our eyes when trying to find Waldo. Our brain shuts down all other tasks and zeros in to see if this is in fact a trigger. The sound amplifies before becoming unbearably austere at the forefront of our attention. Just as before, our focus has dropped from all other tasks because our brain has flagged this sound as danger.
We can decide to fight it, which basically ends up with a battle of mental strength whilst being tortured by our own emotions. Or, we can choose flight. Flighting is a way that we can get away from the sound that is causing pain, but what we leave behind is symbolic of our social lives.
Two and a half years ago, I found an audiologist who specializes in hyperacusis, tinnitus, and misophonia. Meeting with her was an incredible relief, knowing I wasn’t the only person having these experiences. I wasn’t crazy.
She talked through all the findings that she knew of for misophonia. And I was introduced to something called, “Over-The-Ear Noise Generating Devices.” These devices look exactly like hearing aids, except instead of amplifying sound they create their own sound and emit it into the user’s ears.
These noise generators help to rewire and reteach your brain. The noise generators produce white noise at a level set by you and your audiologist based on your hearing level and misophonia severity. While wearing them, your brain is constantly hearing white noise, which is perceived as a neutral sound. Everyday noises, speaking, and triggers can all be heard clearly while wearing the devices. When a trigger is heard, the brain also hears the neutral white noise. Over time, the brain learns to associate the triggers with neutrality rather than red flagging and processing them emotionally.
Because my misophonia was so severe to start with, this process was long, and emotionally draining; most days ended with a headache. But in the long run, there are no words to express how much it has changed my quality of life. Sound sensitivity shouldn’t be something that holds you back from experiences and learning more about research and discoveries can help you understand yourself and your struggles. Now there is light on a subject that so many struggles with alone.
1 Kathy Wieser, Hearing Instrument Specialist, Personal Communication, Dec. 19, 2015 2 Sukhbinder, Kumar et al. The Brain Basis for Misophonia , Feb. 20, 2017, in Science Direct Volume 27, Issue 4, p. 527-533
Author Bio: Kate Hatlevig is a writer from Minnesota. Battling anxiety, Treatment-Resistant Depression, and misophonia, it has become her mission to share her story through writing and doodling. Misophonia is not a very well understood disorder, and it’s one that impacts many at a very young age. When Hatlevig is not writing she is a synchronized swimmer and coach and maintains a website, synchroconcepts.blog.