That deep lump of rage welling up inside you at the sound of someone’s obnoxious gum-chewing or lip-smacking? It has a name, and for some people, it may be of clinical severity.
Misophonia—a term coined by researchers studying ear ringing in the early 2000s [PDF]— means “hatred of sound,” but it generally refers to a hatred of specifically human sounds. These are often related to eating (like lip smacking or chewing) or related to repetitive sounds like breathing or pen-clicking. These sounds don’t just annoy, they cause extreme distress and anger, often resulting in the patient lashing out verbally or physically. Animal sounds don’t affect misaphonics, nor do sounds they produce themselves.
As a condition that has only been recognized fairly recently, misophonia is somewhat controversial in terms of its significance.
In 2013, Amsterdam-based researchers came up with diagnostic criteria that would classify misophonia as a new psychiatric disorder. Based on interviews with 42 people with similar symptoms and triggers, the researchers found that those with misophonia avoid social situations and use headphones to try to block out the offending sounds, and they experience daily stress over avoiding triggers. “Patients had insight and perceived their aggressive reaction as excessive and unreasonable and estimated the loss of self-control as morally unacceptable,” they write.
However, other researchers argue that it could be a symptom of other underlying psychiatric disorders [PDF] like obsessive-compulsive disorder or generalized anxiety. Those who suffer from misophonia have higher incidences of depression and anxiety, and it’s associated with OCD, making it difficult to determine if hating certain sounds is an overlooked symptom of those disorders or if it is a diagnosis in itself. Margaret and Pawel Jastreboff, the Emory University researchers who first coined the term, have argued that it is a condition that has to do with decreased sound tolerance, and it’s possible that people experience it on a spectrum. That is, some people might experience misophonia but not be affected by it on a clinical level, while others are prone to more severe reactions.
Whether or not it’s its own distinct condition, misophonia may be relatively widespread. In a study of almost 500 college students, almost 20 percent of participants reported clinically significant symptoms of misophonia. Again, it was found that the symptoms often coincided with anxiety, depression, and OCD. But since it has yet to be well-studied in more diverse samples, those numbers might not represent the typical figures found in the general population.
Still, it’s always exciting to be able to put a name to your aggravations. I don’t detest the way you smack your gum, I just am undergoing a misophonia-related rage blackout.