Some years ago, due to an old article I wrote about headphones where I mentioned some special models for people with hearing loss, I received an email describing a very particular situation.
Whoever wrote to me told me that there were everyday sounds that irritated her in such a way that they had the power to make her cry.
They were sounds as simple as breathing, sneezing or just hearing someone else chew. These types of sounds triggered, in this person, emotions as intense as crying heavily or getting very angry.
In the mail, I wondered if I knew anything about this since she had visited several doctors without getting clear answers.
I remember that at that time I was subscribed to several magazines related to hearing research, so all I could do was share the contacts of those sites, which were probably more informed about the subject than I was.
I lost touch with this person.
But I always remembered his description of how he perceived these sounds.
Years later I receive a newsletter from The Tinnitus and Hyperacusis Centre, London UK where they share a report on the Components of Decreased Tolerance of Sound: Hyperacusis, Misophonia, Phonophobia.
Within the field of audiology, there are different terms that describe discomforts with respect to hearing.
One of them is hyperacusis: An auditory syndrome that causes a person to experience environmental sounds as extremely painful to hear. These are people who are hypersensitive to everyday sounds.
In most cases hyperacusis is treated with the use of sound generators. Patients are made to listen to sound recordings, in particular combinations of sounds in wide bands, for example white noise or pink noise.
Another term is phonophobia or ligirophobia which is not an auditory syndrome but a symptom related to anxiety disorder. People with phonophobia have an irrational fear of sudden loud noises that can cause severe anxiety attacks.
Highly Disturbing Sounds
Although the term (not entirely accurate) misophony, hatred of sound, was chosen because it is easy to remember and more melodic than selective sound sensitivity syndrome.
The doctors found that many patients labeled as phonophobic weren’t really afraid of sounds, just that certain sounds triggered very explosive emotions in them.
“Hearing those sounds my heart starts beating fast and I feel like I can’t control it. I start crying or I just get really angry. It’s so intense, it’s like I feel like I’m going to die.”
Misophonia is characterized by the feeling of intense emotions, such as anger or crying, in response to highly specific sounds, mostly common sounds that other people make.
Although the causes of these sensations are unknown, they are thought to be associated with the way the brain interprets sound.
A study by the University of Iowa showed that certain people respond very differently to sounds that may be harmless to others.
“Activation sounds in misophonics were associated with abnormal functional connectivity between the anterior insular cortex and a network of regions responsible for the processing and regulation of emotions, including the prefrontal ventromedial cortex, the posteromedial cortex, the hippocampus and the amygdala.
The activation sounds caused an increase in heart rate and galvanic skin response in misophonic subjects.”
The anterior insular cortex is a key node in the neural attention network, a large-scale intrinsic brain network that serves to detect and direct attention to stimuli that are relevant to behavior and meaningful to an individual.
Specific hyperactivity in the anterior insular cortex in misophonic patients, showed that they assign greater attention to very specific sounds.
The University of Iowa study was the first research to clearly show that those who claimed to feel bad about certain sounds were actually suffering from extreme distress.
A Rare or Undiagnosed Disease?
Marsha Johnson is an audiologist specializing in misophony and is the director of the Misophonia Association, an association that seeks to inform about this condition and encourage research.
Misophonia is still listed as a rare chronic disorder and is not yet recognized worldwide. However, it is believed that it may not actually be a rare disease, but rather a fairly common, only misdiagnosed one.
There are still no treatments for this condition but there are some things the patient can do to ease the sensations:
- Flooding the ears with sound or pink/white noise
- Noise cancelling headphones.
- Practice conscious breathing.
- Exercising or simply walking at a brisk pace can help redirect attention and make annoying sounds more tolerable.
I hope the person who wrote me a long time ago can read this article. Know that you are not alone, that what you are suffering from has a name and is being investigated. I hope that this splash of information will be useful to all of us who listen to the world in different ways.
Every time I write about these things, the alarm that sounds inside my head and focuses on the little ones. When a child tells you that he/she is in pain, that he/she does not understand, that he/she feels bad in front of a sound, a color, a smell, a taste, we should not turn a deaf ear, every human being perceives the world differently and that is what makes us unique.
Author: Sol Rezza
Editor | Corrector: Franco Falistoco