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“Przekrój” Magazine brings English-speaking readers some of the best journalism from across Central and Eastern Europe, in the fields of wellbeing, art, literature, science, ecology, philosophy, psychology, and more. Take a break from the speed and intensity of the daily news and join us!

People with misophonia are hypersensitive to certain sounds. The condition can trigger strong negative ...
2018-07-23 00:00:00

An Allergy to Sounds
The Excruciating Pain of Misophonia

Illustration by Marta Janik
An Allergy to Sounds
An Allergy to Sounds

Recommended soundtrack: John Cage, 4’33’’

In the winter issue of “Przekrój”, I explained that having a strong preference for certain sounds that cause a pleasant tingly sensation in the scalp, neck, shoulders and other sensitive areas is not a deviancy of any kind. This experience, known as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), is a phenomenon bordering on the aesthetic and fetishistic. Some people find such sounds as soft whispers or the sound of nails scratching rough surfaces so pleasant that their brain reaches a feeling close to an orgasm. If my article helped anyone to find their auditory G-spot, I consider my mission accomplished. However, there must be balance in nature. If something can be loved, it can also be loathed. If the very mention of the sounds described above sends a violent shiver down your back, it means you most likely suffer from misophonia.

If you need help establishing which side of the audio-sensory spectrum you’re on, you can try answering a few simple questions. Do you experience a surge of panic accompanied by anger/anxiety/irritation in response to hearing a colleague click their pen repeatedly? Do you stiffen the second you see your partner reach for a carrot or apple, indicating an imminent crunch-fest? Do you feel an overwhelming urge to punch loud gum-chewers in the face? Are you guilty of notoriously missing family functions in order to avoid the symphony of slurping and munching you’ll have to suffer on top of staple questions about your personal life (“When are you finally going to get married/divorced/have a baby/have another baby”)?

If you answered ‘yes’ to most of these questions, you most likely are misophonic.

Sounds can lead to suffering. We’re talking existential suffering. Misophonia (or Selective Sound Sensitivity Syndrome; SSSS) doesn’t mean an intolerance to high-volume sounds. Misophonic people are only hypersensitive to certain sounds. It’s more than plain dislike of unpleasant stimuli, such as fingernails on a blackboard, or styrofoam. Misophonic individuals become instantly irritated. One crunch, slurp or loud breath is enough to trigger the urge to flee. This feeling is often described as an overwhelming blend of anger and anxiety, along with the psychological and physiological symptoms of the fight-or-flight response. What’s interesting is that sounds produced by our closest friends and family members turn out to be the most difficult to tolerate. In extreme cases, misophonic individuals resort to physical violence towards themselves and others.

Intolerance to certain sounds begins in childhood. It doesn’t fade over time; it doesn’t go away. Misophonia is usually suffered in silence – we can’t really ask others to stop breathing, can we?

More and more misophonic people try looking for help, but science is yet to come up with a cure for this curious affliction. Some resort to earplugs, others seek help in cognitive behavioral therapy. Many sufferers opt for avoidance strategies, which don’t solve the problem, but deepen their isolation and put a strain on their social life instead.

From the academic perspective, misophonia remains a mystery. Until recently, researchers were reluctant to label it a medical condition. However, a team of scientists from Newcastle University decided to take a closer look at the issue. A group of volunteers were tested using magnetic resonance imaging while their brains were stimulated by various unpleasant sounds. The scientists noticed that various areas of their brains light up with anxiety. It was observed that disturbances occur in the connections between the frontal lobe and insular cortex. Activated areas are responsible for processing emotion, which explains increased heart rate, sweating, and the fight-or-flight response. As with any allergy, those suffering from misophonia can also experience periods of remission and aggravation, depending on their general health and wellbeing.

I would like to end this article on a personal note. After all, we’ve known each other for a whole year now (you heard me right: four issues already!), so it’s a good opportunity for me to come out publicly. I am misophonic. Please refrain from slurping.


Translated by Aga Zano

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