Thursday, December 27, 2012

More on misophonia

Posted By on Thu, Dec 27, 2012 at 9:10 AM

This request for help arrived a few days ago at my email address for my work in psychology. It pertains to misophonia, a brain disorder that makes some people, myself included, hypersensitive to certain sounds, especially while eating:

I know you've written about misophonia in the past. You said you've had it all your life but only recently learned that it's a real disorder. I'm watching my 10-year-old daughter leave the dinner table angry if she hears any of us eating loudly, at least to her ears. I'm wondering if you know any treatment for this.

Funny you should mention this. I was at a communal table at Starbucks last week, when a psychologist friend sat down. Another friend nearby started noisily eating potato chips. Apparently, I shot him some annoyed looks, because he set the chips on the table and asked me, "What?"

"Misophonia," I answered, explaining the disorder. I almost never do that. He looked at me like I was crazy. He offered me a chip. I took it and masticated it noisily. "Oh, my own sounds don't bother me in the least," I explained.

Then my psychologist friend, on the verge of rolling his eyes, said, "Misophonia is a new diagnosis, ever since Dr. Phil began talking about it."

"It's real, I promise," I snapped. I told him that a staffer for Dr. Phil called me a few months back about appearing on the show - "no thanks" - because of the writing I've done about it.

The day after the potato chip incident, I went to see a movie. There were only about 10 people in the theater. My partner Wayne began rattling the popcorn bag and crunching the stuff loudly before the movie started. I ended up grabbing the bag and putting it on the floor. Then someone in front of us started doing the same thing. I was on the enraged verge of wrapping my fingers around his throat when the movie began. My thirst for blood faded to sips of Coca Cola.

That incident points to two ways to deal with misophonia. First and most obvious is removing the offending sound. Turn off the damn Food Network when some asshole is smacking his food to indicate approval.

Second, a background noise that drowns out or diminishes the "trigger noise" (like the movie) is immensely helpful, too. Even playing music at dinner helps divert attention, as does a so-called white noise. You know. Put a portable fan on the dining room table and keep it going at high speed while you watch your dinner companion smack his lips like Daffy Duck. That's why I can go to restaurants comfortably. They're usually noisy because of conversation and continual music.

Some people's misophonia is triggered by other sounds like coughing, typing, clicking a pen, and even the sounds of breathing. In such cases, wearing ear plugs or head phones playing music can help. I've never tried either. On the misophonia continuum, I think my case is relatively mild.

Dr. Phil claims that 10 or 12 hours of cognitive-behavioral therapy, especially "systematic desensitization," can eliminate the problem. That is a controversial claim, to say the least, since there are no studies. Maybe such therapy could help develop coping strategies. I doubt they literally eliminate the problem.

It is certainly helpful to keep in mind that misophonia is caused by the way the brain processes certain sounds. It's not a psychological problem per se, although it certainly has psychological effects on both the sufferer and those close to him. Don't exacerbate those effects by punishing a child by, for example, keeping him at the dinner table because you think she can "get over it" if she just puts his mind to it.

If you decide to take you kid to a psychology professional, ask in advance if they have dealt with the problem before. Most know zero about it. You can also consult an audiologist, but most of them have no techniques for dealing with it, either. I've read that neuro-feedback is helpful for some people, but I'm not sure about children.

Me? I follow the usual advice outlined here with irregular success. Like many others, I unfortunately also respond to visual cues that set up anticipatory anxiety. The discomfort can begin as soon as I see the popcorn bag or the lollipop, even though I want to eat the stuff myself. A sense of humor helps, as does reminding yourself that it's your problem to solve, not the offending eater's. I also discourage disclosing the disorder to anyone but family and close friends. My experience is that nearly nobody will believe you.

I know that all of this sounds crazy, but it's for real. The Internet is full of information, some of it specifically about children with the disorder.

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