If the sound of people chewing, slurping, swallowing their food, or even just the sound of others' breathing intruding into your space makes you clench your fist with rage, then relax. You're not alone. Nor are you being overly critical. It's a real thing, and it's called misophonia. Recently, UK scientists found that some people's brains are hardwired to respond in an “excessively”emotional way to certain noises or triggers.
“If a person suffers from misophonia then they are likely to experience a strong emotional reaction and a ‘flight or fight’ physical response to certain ‘trigger’ sounds, such as the sound of others eating,” Sydney clinical psychologist Dr Anna Kittle tells SBS.
“A person may leave the room, use earplugs, or listen to music, to avoid being exposed to the sounds of people eating.”
...it is a real thing, and can cause unhappiness and stress for people who have it.
The recent study found that the anterior insular cortex, which is the part of the brain which joins our senses with our emotions, is overly active in people who have misophonia. According to Melbourne audiologist Myriam Westcott, our auditory brain usually filters out sounds it considers unimportant, and is tuned to detect sounds that have meaning. However, with misophonia, your brain attaches a negative emotional response to a trigger sound. This makes what may, to others, be a unimportant sound, into a very important one. It can be difficult to ignore and is given a significance it doesn't deserve.
Symptoms of misophonia
• Being unable to be within the vicinity of people who are eating or drinking
• Sounds such as cutlery clinking will set your teeth on edge
• An open-plan office can cause an enormous amount of stress for those with this condition, so people may avoid employment
• Becoming hypervigilent. “People with misophobia will begin to avoid situations where there's even the smallest chance they'll be exposed to the sounds which can cause them distress,” says Kittle. “Being 'on the look out' for problem sound reinforces the idea that sound is a threat.” However, this hypervigilance doesn't change a person's reaction to sound and usually increases their anxiety or distress.
“Some researchers have suggested investigating possible links between misophonia, anorexia nervosa and OCD but more work needs to be done,” Kittle says. “There is still a lot we don't understand about the condition, but it is a real thing, and can cause unhappiness and stress for people who have it.”
In most cases, she says, people will self-treat, and often avoid social situations, such as eating with others, cinemas, restaurants, or parties so that they're not exposed to the sounds they find so irritating and distressing to hear. “It's important to recognise that it is not a sound itself that makes you feel happy, sad or angry, but the meaning or association attached to the sound that gives rise to the emotion,” she says.
How to seek treatment
Interestingly, misophonia is thought to first develop in children between the ages of nine and 13. “Usually by the time people seek treatment, they've been dealing with the symptoms of misophonia for years, or even decades,” says Kittle.
Recognising your symptoms, and its effect on your life and habits, can be the first sign that it's time to seek help. Kittle treats patients through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), using controlled exposure, education about the auditory system, reducing hypervigilance, breathing and relaxation training, lifestyle management and behaviour changes, which helps people to adapt “new” responses to previously upsetting, or emotionally triggering, situations or sounds. “The process of changing your reaction to a sound takes time,” she says. “We are, in a sense, 'retraining' the brain. Each of the treatment components is important and takes dedication and commitment by a patient.”
There are many other food-related phobias you may not have heard of:
Acerophobia: fear of sour-tasting food
Alektorophobia: fear of eating chicken
Arachibutyrophobia: fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth
Cibophobia (Sitophobia): an aversion and anxiety of food and eating it
Consecotaleophobia: fear of chopsticks
Mycophobia: aversion to mushrooms
Geumophobia: a dislike of the taste of food
Ichthyophobia: unable to enjoy seafood
Lachanophobia: not just kids dislike eating vegetables
Phagophobia: fear of swallowing food