Annoyed by Loud Chewing? The Reason Might Be in Your Brain
If you suffer from misophonia, you may not be able to tolerate lip smacking.
Some sounds are almost universally accepted annoying. Think of nails on a chalkboard, a baby’s persistent wailing, or the sleep-piercing alarm clock. However, as grating as those noises may be, they are seldom more than a passing irritation for most people. For others, though, moods can be negatively affected by sounds — and they’re usually produced by other people. It’s because of a condition called misophonia.
What Is Misophonia?
Misophonia is defined by Merriam-Webster as a “condition in which one or more common sounds (such as the ticking of a clock, the hum of a fluorescent light, or the chewing or breathing of another person) cause an atypical emotional response (such as disgust, distress, panic, or anger) in the affected person hearing the sound.”
It’s sometimes referred to as “elective sound sensitivity syndrome,” according to Web MD. As you’ll see, the sounds that cause extreme responses are frequently those produced by other people in a repetitive way.
An accidental smack of the lips or a loud sigh is usually no problem for someone with misophonia. But when a person makes those noises repetitively, any hope for a measured emotional response is likely lost. Note the quote by journalist John Markoff that accompanies the dictionary definition: “For people with a condition that some scientists called misophonia, mealtime can be torture. The sounds of other people eating — chewing, chomping, slurping, gurgling — can send them into an instantaneous, blood-boiling rage.”
Does that sound like you? Does the sound of someone’s audible chewing make you irate? It’s not their fault; they’re not trying to irritate you. But it’s also not your fault, exactly. It’s simply that your brain is wired to really, really hate noises like that.
How Misophonia Affects the Brain
For someone with misophonia, when smacking lips, slurping or loud breathing occurs, portions of the brain are activated and overstimulated. As Science Alert writes, those sounds cause an increase in activity in the “AIC and frontal lobe [and] also in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), hippocampus, and amygdala.” The annoying sounds literally overwhelm the brain of people with misophonia.
The extreme emotional response to those noises comes on at once. That may be surprising to others who see the person with misophonia become rapidly and, in their eyes, inexplicably upset. However, their feelings are entirely explainable, even though the science on misophonia is rather new.
In fact, the science isn’t even settled yet. Nature states, “Because of its novelty, misophonia research is still in its infancy and not readily accepted in the scientific community as a distinct and valid disorder.” So if you suffer from the condition, you may not find it readily understood in casual conversation. Therefore, you may have some explaining to do, if you can bear the sounds long enough to talk.
For those who don’t suffer from misophonia, it can be difficult to understand how unpleasant these sounds can be. Perhaps the best way to appreciate the intensity is to imagine hearing a baby’s wails, fingernails dragged across slate and loud buzzing, all at once. The level of anger and discomfort you might experience is similar to what a person with misophonia feels when they hear a triggering sound.
How to Deal With the Condition
One of the worst things about misophonia is how limiting and isolating the condition can be. Anyone who is helplessly driven to fits of rage by the way others chew will find ways to avoid people. That may because someone is a known loud chewer. Or, if a person’s sensitivity is acute enough, they may simply avoid others at meal times, and eat alone. Either way, the condition means a loss of what should be an enjoyable shared experience. And, if the sounds that bother the person are breathing, coughing or any non-meal related noise, the sufferer may avoid some, or many, people entirely.
In most cases, the best bet is to avoid potential triggers. If you can opt for a meeting with a client, rather than lunch or dinner, it will be a one-time event either way. Go for the meeting, and reduce the chance of friction. In other cases, you can choose to dine in conditions where it’s unlikely you’ll hear the chewing or smacking, such as on a restaurant patio or at a noisy diner.
At home, you can explain your condition to your family, and look for solutions like earplugs worn at meal time You can avoid serving foods that are likely to cause issues, like hot soups or noodles that may require slurping. The best thing to do is to know your triggers, calmly explain them to others, and hope they are understanding. And be prepared to calmly remove yourself from a situation in which your anger rises as the sounds begin. After all, it’s really not their fault.