The People Who Can’t Stand Everyday Sounds
Up to 20 percent of the population are thought to be affected by some form of misophonia: an intense negative reaction to sounds.
There are certain sounds that make most people’s skin crawl, like the scraping of fingernails down a blackboard.
But 12-year-old Nishtha Bedarkar has a visceral response to plenty of sounds made by those around her.
“Lots of tapping sounds,” she describes. “The scratching on a plate with the fork and knife… the AC… coughing and snorting.”
“She was very sensitive to her brother breathing, and I just thought that was rubbish,” says her mother Rashmi. “Why would you get upset at somebody breathing?”
And these sounds don’t just irritate Nishtha, they give her a sudden, irrational feeling of rage.
“You feel like Hulk – you start to get angry all of a sudden and you want to like hit everything and trash everything.”
Two years ago, Nishtha was diagnosed with a neurophysiological anxiety-based disorder known as misophonia, which literally means ‘hatred of sound’.
Those with severe misophonia experience physical reactions to their triggers, including a fastening of their heart rate, sweatiness, nausea and increased body temperature, as well as emotional reactions like rage, anger and disgust.
While it’s not widely known about or well understood, it affects up to 20 per cent of the population to some degree. But as a relatively new condition (the term was only coined in the early part of this century) many sufferers remain undiagnosed as some medical professionals don’t even know it exists.
“We don’t really know exactly what’s going on because there still hasn’t been enough research around this,” says psychologist Michelle Harris, “but what we do know is that their brain is hearing the noise as a threat.”
In severe cases, there can be up to 50 different trigger noises. And many sufferers find their family and loved ones are their biggest triggers - the sound of a family member eating is more unbearable than that of a stranger.
Researchers are still trying to work out why this is the case, but psychologists believe it’s because sufferers let their guard down around their nearest and dearest, making them more vulnerable to extreme reactions.
Many suffering from misophonia spend most of their day wearing headphones or earplugs in an attempt to block out triggers. Many also avoid situations that trigger them, such as eating out, or travelling on public transport.
For Nishtha, this means spending a lot of time alone in her room, which is also where she eats her dinner. She finds school particularly difficult as there’s no way to escape from hearing the noises.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of treatment options available, although a small study has found cognitive behavioural therapy was effective with around half of those impacted with misophonia, with subjects able to retrain their brain to have a more positive response.