When it comes to noise most people have at least one or more pet irritants. I have a whole list. Loud motorcycles, dental drills, people who repeatedly whistle the same few notes of a tune, and many more besides. However, a sigh, a frown or a quick grumble and I’m done. Others however are so sensitive to particular sounds that it can lead them to aggressive behavior, social isolation and depression.
The association between sound sensitivity and stress has been known for some time but the mechanism still isn’t understood. The term Misophonia, also called Selective Sound Sensitivity Syndrome (4S), was coined only quite recently (2003) by American neuroscientists Pawel and Margaret Jastreboff. It describes the strong emotional reaction felt by certain people to daily and sometimes barely audible sounds that most of us would ignore.
Some people are hypersensitive to a whole variety of sounds. They can range from anything like the noise of someone chewing food, to the sound of footsteps, humming, the noise of everyday electrical appliances (e.g. toothbrushes) or the clatter of plate stacking. And while intolerance to specific sounds isn’t fully understood it is at least beginning to receive more attention.
Professor Dan Hasson and colleagues, of Stockholm University’s Stress Research Institute, have reported that women suffering from stress-related exhaustion show hypersensitivity to sounds. Some volunteers experienced uncomfortable sound sensitivity as low as 60 decibels, which is about the level of normal conversation. Although a similar trend was discovered in men, the differences were not statistically significant. Hasson’s findings represent the first study to demonstrate empirically a direct association between experimentally induced stress and sound hypersensitivity.
Interviewed in 2011 by the New York Times, Dr. Marsha Johnson, an audiologist who now runs an online support group for sufferers, states that some of the most uncomfortable noises for sufferers are things like a dog licking its paws, or "the pop of the ‘p’ in ordinary conversation." Unlike the condition hyperacusis, in which sounds are perceived as abnormally loud and a variety of causes are known, misophonia remains poorly understood.
Misophonia nearly always starts in late childhood or early adolescence and worsens over time. It seems that the condition may be a physiological disorder and one that is activated by certain sounds. The support website misophonia.info lists a variety trigger stimuli varying from mouth and eating noises, through to breathing, visual, non-visual, body movements and environmental noises.
There is currently no cure for misophonia but some people find relief from stress reduction techniques, cognitive behavioral therapy, noise reduction or distraction techniques such as earplugs or personal music devices.
So the next time someone glares at you for clicking your pen, drumming your fingers, filing your nails, snorting, or sucking your teeth, maybe spare a thought for the distressing effects those little habits may be having on them?
Pawel J. Jastreboff, Margaret M. Jastreboff (April 2003). Tinnitis retraining therapy for patients with tinnitus and decreased sound tolerance. Otolaryngol Clin 36(2): 321-36.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.