Chewed out for chewing: Little-known disorder leaves sufferers frustrated by ordinary sounds

Misophonia is a relatively unknown condition that causes people to experience intense reflex reactions to everyday sounds like loud chewing or sniffling. It can result in frustration and lashing out and is often a source of shame and embarrassment. CBC's Martin Jones details his personal struggle.

Misophonia is a relatively unknown condition that causes intense reflex reactions — and embarrassment

Do any ordinary, everyday sounds — like someone chewing in a coffee shop — make you irrationally angry? You're not alone, writes CBC N.L.'s Martin Jones, who discovered there's a name for what he experiences: misophonia. (Wayhome Studio/Shutterstock)

For as long as I can remember, I've always gotten really angry at the sound of people eating. Sometimes it's so bad that I lash out and say something really mean.

A few years ago at a local coffee shop, a gentleman sat at a nearby table having lunch. I could hear him chewing his sandwich over the background music. I scrambled to find my headphones to drown out his lip smacking and clicks of saliva. I could feel a wave of anger and disgust slide over me. Within seconds I was furious and I suddenly blurted out, "Could you close your mouth when you chew?"

I have no idea if he heard me or not. It didn't matter; I felt so ashamed for reacting so irrationally. I'm embarrassed even writing this story down now. 

I'm not an angry person and I don't have a temper. I understand that food just makes noise when eaten. Yet somehow those sounds make me see red sometimes. The only upside is that the emotions are gone almost as instantly as they appear. It's something I've struggled to understand.

It's not something the person is doing on purpose.- Dr. Jaelline Jaffe

Then, a few months ago, I came across an article on a little-known condition called misophonia. It described people having intense reflex reactions to ordinary sounds that most people don't even notice: food noises, sniffling and coughing, for example.

I now had a name for all those humiliating reactions I've had. Misophonia was an actual thing.

Hard to find answers

There has been very little research done on misophonia. It's not included in the diagnostic manuals used by mental health or medical professionals.

I did find one expert in the field: Dr. Jaelline Jaffe, a psychotherapist based in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

Jaffe says the lack of research of misophonia makes it hard to even find a formal definition for it.

"The word literally means 'hatred of sound,' which is not correct," said Jaffe. "People with misophonia have extreme reactions to ordinary sounds … but it can include other things, like visual things."

Jaffe says a large portion of her clients have misophonia. While national or global statistics are non-existent, she estimates 20 to 30 per cent of the population could experience it to some degree. As for what triggers angry responses, Jaffe explains the reactions could be a fight-or-flight response.

"It seems there's something going on where the brain is interpreting these sounds as if they are dangerous," said Jaffe. "It's that kind of reaction.… It happens instantly. It's not something the person is doing on purpose."

It's all in the brain

But over the last few years, there have been some studies done on misophonia. One, a British study that examined whole-brain MRI scans, found that specific regions of the brain were activated when a person with misophonia heard certain trigger sounds.

As for treatments, some medications work, though none of them are designed to treat misophonia specifically.

So far, not much is known about misophonia, writes Jones, CBC N.L.'s co-host of Newfoundland Morning. (CBC)

There are also management strategies. With her clients, Jaffe uses an approach that redirects the brain and its associations to sounds. It's a method that, if successful, could allow a person to coexist with triggering sounds.

For me, it means sometimes moving tables in a restaurant or turning up the music in my headphones. I also avoid suggesting going out for a meal with someone who I know makes a lot of noise when they eat.

On a personal note

I wasn't sure about writing this article. I'm worried people will think I'm a loose cannon just waiting to explode at the next stranger that slurps their soup. I also don't want people to feel uncomfortable around me during a lunch meeting or the next family function.

I likely won't get a formal diagnosis for misophonia any time soon, at least not until more is discovered about this condition.

For now, I cope with it by talking to loved ones and coworkers about it. I explain what my reactions are and why they happen. It's not ideal but at least it eases my guilt a bit. At least they know that I'm not trying to be a jerk.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Martin Jones co-hosts CBC Newfoundland Morning each weekday from Gander.