When sound drives you crazy: Misophonia, tinnitus, phonophobia and more

Before I give my two cats their morning meal, I turn on the kitchen sink — full force — so that the sound of running water masks the slurpy sounds they make eating.

Even then, I can’t watch them eat, or my overactive imagination will “hear” those sounds and grate on my nerves — enough at times that I’ve felt it could drive me mad.

And, when a person I’m eating with chews too loudly, slurps their food or drinks noisily, that also makes every nerve in my body quiver. I feel disgust, anger and anxiety.

This has always baffled and, quite frankly, scared me. I am generally a calm person. What is going on with this noise business?

Recently, I’ve found out that there’s a name for my experience: misophonia — also known as selective sound sensitivity syndrome. I’ve also found out that about 20 percent of people share this disorder with me.

Research on misophonia is in its infancy, but we do know some of the basics about this disorder…

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What is misophonia?

Misophonia literally means “hatred of sound.” It usually begins at a young age. I recall feeling this way as early as twelve or thirteen.

Misophonia is not a hearing problem. In fact, the most recent research tells us what’s happening in the brain when someone with misophonia is exposed to a trigger sound.

The amygdalais activated and initiates the “fight or flight” response, complete with its release of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Alertness and heart rate both go up as the person prepares for the perceived threat.

Trouble is, there is no real danger in someone slurping their soup. But the amygdala doesn’t know that. It interprets these noises as danger signals. We don’t yet know why that is.

And truth be told, my friends don’t have terrible table habits. When someone suffers from misophonia, their anxiety and dislike tied to trigger sounds is often anticipatory. In other words, I know a sound I don’t like is about to start happening over and over again and the dread exaggerates what I’m hearing.

But thankfully, research is ongoing into what causes misophonia and how to help people like me deal with it — as well as other surprising disorders that involve sounds…

Too much, too loud and where is that noise coming from

Several other disorders also involve tolerance to sound but may not stem from any abnormality in the auditory system.

Two that are often confused, both by medical practitioners and in scientific literature, are phonophobia and hyperacusis.

Phonophobia, as the name suggests, is a persistent and unwarranted fear of loud sounds that might startle most of us but are especially unsettling to someone with this condition. Phonophobia is considered an anxiety disorder and can cause panic attacks.  Sounds such as doors or cabinets banging shut, fireworks and even the sheer anticipation that a balloon is about to pop can be very stressful if you suffer from phonophobia.

Hyperacusis is an abnormally strong reaction to everyday sounds, at volumes that would not trouble the average person. That’s because people with the condition are especially sensitive to certain sounds making them seem louder than they should, like a running faucet, the humming of an appliance, a car engine or even a conversation. Hyperacusis is considered a hearing disorder even though most people who suffer with it have normal hearing. The condition is rare, but most people who have it also have tinnitus.

Tinnitus is a condition where people tend to hear a buzzing, ringing, chirping, roaring or humming sound that doesn’t come from an external source. Unlike hyperacusis, tinnitus is a common problem, affecting about 15 to 20 percent of people, mostly aged 55 and older, and can be constant or intermittent, steady or even pulsating. Some medications may trigger the condition and the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to affect a rise in cases of it. Like the other conditions, there is no easy cure, but a few researched solutions hold promise.

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What to do if sounds trouble you

Based on my personal experiences with misophonia, I felt relief to know that I was not alone. That goes for anyone suffering with any of these conditions. If you feel that way it’s important to seek help.

All of these disorders can trigger anxiety and depression: anxiety as you wait for the next intolerable sound, and depression as you become isolated in an attempt to avoid triggers and are viewed as having a “strange” and invisible problem.

Vitamin B6 is a great natural anxiety reliever. Also, research has shown that Vitamins D and K2, through supplementation or food, work together as natural depression relievers.

Cognitive-based therapies can help sufferers with different strategies like attention shifting, counterconditioning and relaxation techniques.

White noise therapy or apps have been shown helpful in all of these conditions.

Resources that may help include:

soQuiet, an organization that offers resources and support to people with misophonia, has an extensive list of free tools and resources.

And another website, aptly named “Allergic to Sound,” was started by a writer who lives with misophonia. He offers a great deal of support and information, including 8 Misophonia Coping Strategies.

The American Tinnitus Association makes it easy to know what kind of health provider may help the most and provides tips on the condition.

The American Tinnitus Association also lists provider information that is relevant for those with hyperacusis whether or not they are experiencing tinnitus.

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Tinnitus, misophonia and phonophobia: the big three explained — knops.co

Neural evidence for non-orofacial triggers in mild misophonia — Frontiers in Neuroscience

What is misophonia? — Web MD

The Complete Guide to Coping with Misophonia  — Better Humans

8 Misophonia Coping Strategies — Allergic to Sound

When You Can’t Stand the Sound of Chewing (or Crunching, or Sniffling) — NY Times

Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.