I started to write a post about how my life with hearing devices is going (and I was on a roll) when I looked something up online that pointed me in a slightly different, but more interesting, direction…
While researching a condition called Hyperacusis, where a sensitivity to certain sounds (also called a lowered Loudness Discomfort Level, or LDL) causes discomfort or pain, I discovered something: I have a set of symptoms that correspond to a recently discovered (well, around 2000 or so) neurological disorder called Misophonia, or Selective Sound Sensitivity Syndrome (4S). I’ve had these symptoms for many years – so long that I can no longer recall a time I didn’t experience them. When I hear certain sounds, I get an immediate, irrational, extreme fight-or-flight reaction: rage, panic, severe anxiety, hate, and disgust…over something as simple as someone whistling or clicking a pen. Sometimes even visual stimuli can cause the same reaction as auditory triggers.
While we all have certain sounds that bother us, this isn’t like that. This is a reflex; I can’t stop it from happening, nor can I control it. My stomach tightens, my heart pounds, I feel provoked to fist-shaking anger, and I cannot ignore the sound. It is so distracting to me that it becomes my sole focus. My best bet would be to avoid the stimuli (‘triggers’) that cause the problem, but that is not always possible; in fact, it is rarely possible, especially in a work or social environment.
Every day is an opportunity for trigger sounds, in every environment. I go to a meeting, and someone is absentmindedly clicking his pen. I go to the store, and the teenager in front of me in line is snapping her gum. I go to the movie theater, and the people behind me drive me crazy with the wrapper on their snacks. As much as I try to keep my emotion in check when it happens, I usually fail miserably and end up glaring at the person making the sound. Most of the time, the person doesn’t even realize they’re doing it and has no way of knowing how violently it affects me. I feel guilty and embarrassed to have such strong reactions to such innocuous noises, and I know that it makes me seem cranky or bitchy, but I can’t help it.
When I was young, my mother’s whistling spurred me to inexplicable anger every time I heard it – it was as if she had provoked me to fight. She couldn’t understand it, and I couldn’t explain it. Whistling was something my very musical mother truly enjoyed, and she did it without thinking. If I could, I’d go somewhere else, but that wasn’t always possible. She tried to comply when I’d ask (or angrily tell) her to stop, but it made no sense. To this day, I loathe the sound of whistling. Likewise, the sound of chewing gum, especially with ‘snapping’ or ‘cracking’ noises, sends me into orbit; for that reason, I have always told my kids that if they have gum, I don’t want to see it or hear it.
Through my (limited) online research, I discovered that I am not alone in this affliction. While it is not an official mental disorder, it is a defined set of symptoms and has been suggested for classification as a discrete psychiatric disorder in the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) spectrum, for the purpose of official diagnoses and treatments as well as better recognition and research by the professional medical community. It was first identified in the research and treatment of tinnitus. It is neither a result nor factor in hearing loss; rather, it seems to relate to the limbic system, the structure of the brain that controls emotion and behavior. A small number of studies and reviews have been conducted, but research seems to suggest that misophonia may be a result of dysfunction in the same cortices of the brain where Tourette’s is also indicated. There is also data to suggest it might be a form of Synesthesia, a neurological condition where stimulus to one sense gets not only the correct response in that sense, but a simultaneous reaction in another sense; for example, some people ‘hear’ colors or ‘taste’ sounds.
I am thrilled that there is a name for what I have suffered with for most of my life. I don’t know where it came from or whether I will ever find relief, but it is good to know that my wildly disproportionate reaction to certain sounds is not a result of me being unreasonable and bitchy. It is not because I am in a bad mood. It is not because I am controlling, selfish, angry, judgmental, or annoying — although I might well be all of those, they are not the reasons why I might throw you out the window if you decide to chew ice or crack peanuts next to me.
photo credit timparkinson