A man said he hasn’t seen his family in years because the sound of their chewing drives him crazy. His condition isn’t unique.

Misophonia can be isolating. https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/man-back-covering-his-ears-318357545
  • A man from California made said he hasn’t seen his family in four years because their chewing and throat-clearing sounds make him “fly into a rage,” according to the New York Post.
  • He’s not the only one who has misophonia, which can cause emotional reactions to specific sounds like chewing or tapping.

Derrol Murphy has walked out on dates with loud eaters, “nearly attacked” pen-clicking coworkers, and hasn’t spoken to his family in four years, the New York Post reported.

The 41-year-old graphic design production manager in California has misophonia, an unusual disorder that can cause people to feel rage, fear, or panic in response to everyday noises like breathing, chewing, and tapping.

Though it’s still not well understood, research has suggested that the disorder, far from being a simple personality quirk, is caused by a heightened neurological response to certain sounds.

“It’s your brain misinterpreting [the sound] as something harmful, which puts you into fight-or-flight response,” Dr. Jennifer Brout, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Sensory Processing and Emotion Regulation Program at Duke University Medical Center, told INSIDER. It’s not a reaction to the people who caused the sound.

Here’s what else you need to know about misophonia, plus some tips for how to cope if you think you might have it.

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There’s a lot we still don’t know about misophonia

Misophonia was first recognised by that name in 2000, referring to any of a variety of negative emotions or reactions in response to sounds. By some estimates, it affects as many as 15 per cent of adults.

Misophonia is not recognised in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, but increasingly, people with it are becoming aware of their disorder and finding each other online through organisations like Misophonia International.

The condition tends to occur more in women, according to some accounts. It can happen to any age group, Brout said, but may be more common than is recognised in younger children, who aren’t capable of articulating that they’re bothered by a specific sound.

A common misconception about misophonia is that it’s related to another condition, such as autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or even generalized anxiety. Although that’s sometimes the case, Brout said, it’s not always true.

And, although it literally translates to “hatred of sound,” it’s not a conscious reaction, Brout says. The first neurological study of misophonia, which was as recent as 2017, found that people with the disorder have a physiological, almost instantaneous, reaction to triggering sounds.

Misophonia is thought to be caused by a neurological mix-up

As best as researchers understand it, misophonia happens when there’s a mixup in the anterior insula, the part of the brain that gives meaning to sounds but also regulates emotions.

Researchers have found that in people with misophonia, those areas of the brain have more myelin, a protein coating on the nerves that speeds electrical impulses. This could suggest those people with misophonia experience more intense connections in those neurological responses, triggering their fight-or-flight responses, Brout said.

The amygdala, also involved in emotional processing, is also believed to play a role in misophonia, Brout said. But it’s still not entirely clear how that works.

What we do know is that a few common types of sounds tend to be most likely to trigger misophonia. “Chewing is the No. 1 trigger sound, and the most difficult to get past,” Brout said. Tapping, breathing, coughing, or clicking can also cause distress.

A major factor in why these sounds are triggering is that they tend to be repetitive. For most people, Brout said, repetition cues the brain to ignore the sound as part of background noise. But for someone with misophonia, it registers as a possible threat.

“If you feel like something could be harmful, you’re not going to be able to ignore it,” Brout said. The severity, and frequency, of emotional outbursts as a result can vary from person to person. But the reaction, whether it’s fear, disgust, or rage, is immediate.

People with misophonia may experience more intense connections in certain neurological responses. Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency/Wikimedia Commons

Misophonia is treatable, although lack of awareness makes it difficult to diagnose

Because it happens so quickly, and across complex areas of the brain, coping with misophonia requires a multi-disciplinary team, often including both audiologists and psychologists. Cognitive behavioural therapy, which often works for other mental health conditions like anxiety by helping you retrain your thought patterns, may not be effective on its own because the brain reacts so quickly to the trigger sound, Brout said.

“You really don’t have time to gather cognitive resources when this neuron reaction is happening in milliseconds,” she explained.

For Murphy, the man interviewed by the New York Post, one helpful coping mechanism has been having his partner give him a warning when a potentially-distressing sound was imminent. That may work for some, Brout said, but for others, herself included, that warning could itself become a trigger.

Ultimately, each individual should figure out what works best for them. Misophonia International is a good place to start, Brout said. There are also resources for parents who suspect their child might have misophonia.

Even if you do have misophonia, it’s not likely that you’ll end up estranged from your family.

“Most of the time, unless there’s another issue going on, families usually can function with adjustments,” Brout said. “It’s all about education, understanding, and practical coping skills.”

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