My misophonia presents itself as an immediate paralysing fear, triggered by loud music I can’t control. If I can hear music through the wall from next door, for example, I become suddenly overwhelmed with terror and I can’t stop it. I’ve suffered from this condition since I was a teenager – I just didn’t have a name for it then. I thought I was just being difficult: ex-boyfriends have told me off for my uncontrollable reactions to this trigger sound. (There’s a reason those boyfriends are now exes.)
Misophonia is a condition whereby people experience intense emotions when confronted with everyday sounds made by others. These emotions are usually intense anger or disgust in response to sounds like eating or sniffing. These triggers can derail positive thought patterns, overriding them with immediate and extreme negative emotion. "It's instant anger," says 34-year-old Zoe from Bristol of her misophonia. She has suffered from the condition since childhood. "Hearing someone chew with their mouth open sets me off. It's disgusting. And sniffing? Why is it a thing? Blow your nose, you’re an adult." Zoe says bringing a partner into the mix makes having misophonia even more trying. "I had an ex who sniffed all the time," says Zoe. "It got to the point where I thought of him as disgusting, even though he wasn't a disgusting person. At the time I thought it was just me being a bit of a brat. But now I know misophonia has an actual name, and is an actual thing… Maybe I'm not as crazy as I thought."
Emma, 36, originally from New Zealand, has misophonia too. She relates similar triggering experiences in her own romantic relationship. "If my boyfriend is eating, I have to have the TV or some music on," she says. "And when we first got together, he was gross. He would slurp everything. He would somehow manage to eat pizza and be slurping it." How does she manage misophonia and being in close quarters with her partner while he eats? "Sometimes I'll discreetly put my finger in my ear and soothe myself by being like, 'He’s not doing anything wrong. It's gonna pass, he's gonna finish his meal soon,'" she says. "And I don't get angry with him because he hasn’t done anything wrong. Usually, if people are nice and they care about you, they will try and eat more quietly when you explain." Zoe agrees on the importance of communication – her husband of eight years has learned about and considers her triggers, apologising immediately after accidentally making a triggering noise near her, or making sure he does it well away from her.
Misophonia is an often misunderstood and extremely unpleasant condition. We aren't just being 'difficult'.
Relationship tension can also arise from noises that aren’t made by partners. Thirty-one-year-old Reid’s misophonia is triggered by their dogs licking themselves and while they’re looking forward to their partner, Laura, moving in with them soon, they’re also worried about the strain their misophonia puts on mornings, when the sound is most prominent. "If I could explain properly what it feels like – an instantaneous flick over to rage – then it would be taken more seriously, I think," says Reid of the public perception of the condition. By communicating with Laura ahead of her move-in date, though, they’ve come up with coping techniques, including keeping headphones under Reid’s pillow for them to wear each morning.
I’ve developed my own coping strategies over the years and while they work to a certain extent, I’m keen to get my misophonia cured for good – preferably as quickly as possible. But speaking to Dr Hashir Aazh, an audiologist and specialist in tinnitus and misophonia rehabilitation, makes me realise it’s not that easy. "There is no definitive cure for misophonia," he tells me via Zoom from his dedicated private clinic in Surrey. "The reaction to a triggering sound has an emotional component, in which an individual can get angry or disgusted, and a bodily sensation, which could present as a heart rate increase or feeling of tension. That initial reaction is extremely hard to dampen because it happens so quickly."
Dr Aazh’s approach is to offer therapy to break misophonia’s usual emotional pattern. "The initial reaction often starts a vicious cycle, which snowballs," he explains, "and then the snowball becomes a feedback loop. So the actual reaction increases as well, because a feedback loop of stress is created. The idea of the therapy is to break that cycle of distress created around the initial reaction. So the initial reaction happens but it will be much easier to recover from. Long term, it is possible that the initial reaction also reduces."
As a misophonia sufferer, it seems therapy to manage that feedback loop might be one answer. But what about partners of those with misophonia? How can they support their partners and themselves in the pressurised scenarios that misophonia sometimes sets off? "They need to understand that this is a real condition and do whatever they can to minimise the triggers that they are creating," says Dr Aazh. "They should encourage their partner to seek professional help to manage it, too. And don’t forget it’s hard for you as well. You may need professional help, too, because sometimes your life can be significantly limited – especially if your partner’s triggers are eating, sleeping or even breathing noises. Openness can only be a good thing but it won’t solve the problem. Therapy is really important to learn how to manage misophonia, for both partners." Dr Aazh also tells me he has never come across a client whose trigger is a sex noise. One less thing to worry about, I suppose.
Every misophonia sufferer I spoke to wanted non-sufferers to understand that misophonia is an often misunderstood and extremely unpleasant condition. We aren’t just being ‘difficult’. I’m usually a confident, excitable person but my misophonia transforms me into someone I don’t recognise within seconds. This can be very jarring, not just for me but for my boyfriend, too. Managing this condition in a relationship undeniably makes things harder for everyone involved but with communication, coping techniques and the relatively new opportunity to access specialist help, I feel better equipped than ever.