My colleague has been finger drumming the desk for 3 minutes now…
He does this most days.
‘Rational brain’ knows it’s a harmless, innocuous thing, yet every time I hear that sound my brain screams “%@@$£!!” and I just want to sprint out of the office and dive headfirst into the Thames.
… and now he’s stopped.
Thankfully misophonia triggers tend to be fleeting.
The problem is, and maybe you can identify with this too, I still feel on edge.
As far as my brain’s concerned the threat has not fully passed. He might start finger drumming or coughing or rustling again at any moment.
One of the worst things about this disorder is that relentless, droning anxiety that seeps into the liminal spaces in-between triggers.
Let me explain what I mean by that…
Misophonia triggers are intense, overwhelming and unpleasant. That’s the obvious, headline effect of the disorder.
But there’s something else…
A kind of ghostly residue… a slow burning, low-level anxiety in the moments in-between triggers when you feel trapped. You’re not being triggered – your amygdala is calm again (sort of) – yet you feel distracted and overly aware of your surroundings.
You could be in an office, a school, a lecture theatre – anywhere that you cannot easily leave.
The problem starts when you’re triggered by someone (usually a person who you know tends to make a lot of sounds/movements that trigger you) and you have stay in that space with them for a prolonged period of time.
Because you know you may get triggered again by them again soon, anxiety kicks in. You are, to put it bluntly, preparing yourself for more to come…
You’re now constantly aware of that person and start subconsciously monitoring their presence… waiting for the next trigger
I’ve often thought misophones would make wonderful spies. We pick up on the smallest details…
Every micro movement, every breath, every tap.
But why does this happen?
The brain has survival mechanisms built in which are designed to protect us in dangerous situations.
For example, if we see someone running towards us with a machete in their hand, our brain goes into freeze-fight-flight mode so that we can act quickly, on instinct.
The problem is even when the immediate threat of attack has passed, the brain keeps us alert for long as it believes the attacker is present or nearby.
It makes sense. If he comes at you, you want to be ready. In survival scenarios every millisecond counts.
But that doesn’t help us as misophones…
Our main issue is that we’re also triggered by non-threats by non-threatening people, sometimes on a near constant basis.
The science behind this is important, so I want to turn to Dr Brout who puts it eloquently in her excellent article (do check it out) in Psychology Today:
“The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls many organs and muscles within the body, unconsciously, without thought or effort. Within the ANS, the sympathetic nervous system’s function is to prepare the body to deal with a threatening situation by either “fighting” the danger or “fleeing” from it.
When this reaction is triggered, the body is flooded with hormones that give a boost of energy. When the sympathetic nervous system is aroused we may feel an increase in heart rate, and we might notice our palms are sweaty. How the body attempts to combat this reaction (in order to return to a calm state) also involves the ANS. The para-sympathetic nervous system, the other important part of the ANS, puts on the brakes so that the body can relax back into a calm state. This means that periodically throughout the day, every day, a person with misophonia experiences physiological “ups and downs.”
In other words, you are not at fault. When you’re exposed to a trigger, your body automatically prepares itself for danger. Your heart thumps… you might start to sweat… the mind starts racing…
I keep repeating this on Allergic to Sound (and will continue to do so). Our brains are wired to respond in this way, in the same way that a dyslexic brain is wired differently. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing, it just is. My mum has green eyes, mine are brown, vive la difference.
Neuroscientists are still looking into why this happens to us – and we discuss this elsewhere this site – but what matters is this. It’s a very real neurological and physiological response.
This near constant sensory overload and low-level anxiety between triggers is exhausting
Let’s approach this from a different angle.
You meet up with a friend and ask them how their day was.
They say: “Well, this morning I did a parachute jump. Then on my way to lunch a man wearing a balaclava pointed a gun at me. And just now, on my way to meet you, a tarantula dropped out of a tree and landed on my head.”
After you gasp, give them a hug and check, very discreetly, that they no longer have a tarantula on their head, you reflect on what they’ve just told you.
They have experienced events that would each trigger a freeze-flight-fight response in the brain. While none of these are particularly physical events, but they are all exhilarating, terrifying and extremely mentally taxing.
And so you would fully expect that person would feel completely and utterly drained and exhausted.
Now consider this…
As misophones we’re often thrust in and out of freeze-fight-flight mode 5, 10, 15, 20 times in a single day.
On top of that, in many situations we also then have this anticipation of further triggers.
So we have these 2 great strains placed on us througout the day:
1. The immediate neurological and physiological response to misophonia triggers. Big, brain-busting misophodes. Your head’s screaming “STOP!” and you’re doing everything you can to hold yourself together and not flip out. This is exhausting.
2. That constant, low level anxiety that can exist between triggers. Sensory overload… the anticipation of more triggers… the subconscious monitoring… the hyper awareness. Again, this is exhausting and nerve wracking.
So it’s little surprise that at the end of a full day at work or school – or anywhere where don’t feel we can escape – we often feel completely exhausted.
We spend the whole day noticing and processing everything around us. Burning through energy reserves during full blown misophodes and then getting hit with that slow, consistent drain as we continually monitor those moments in-between triggers.
So now you know why you often feel mentally drained after a day sat in a mundane office or classroom.
7 things you do to help overcome sensory overload and misophonia exhaustion
1. Be aware that it’s happening – Just noticing and realising the impact it’s having is a good start. Knowing that the problem is there puts you in the driving seat because you’re no longer battling an invisible foe
2. Work with your misophonia, not against it – It’s not going anywhere and the people around us aren’t going to suddenly stop making normal, human sounds, so let’s find ways to work with it. Instead of spending precious time and energy placing the blame on ourselves or others, we can get prepared. That means:
3. Always have a simple escape plan prepared just in case – When it gets too much, get up and go to the toilet/bathroom and take some time out – that’s a super easy one
4. Try (if possible) to discuss flexible ways to work with your boss/school – Ask if there’s a quiet room where you can study or take a laptop when you need to… see if you can work certain days from home… try sitting in a different area… take regular breaks
5. Always have your emergency misophonia tools to hand and keep spares in accessible places – Ear/headphones are life savers
6. Try to make your living space a safe, noise-free haven where you can recharge – If you go into work or school or a public space already feeling tired, stressed and on edge, everything will feel ten times worse. You need time to recharge and reset. Got noisy neighbours? See if you can put better noise insulation (even putting a bookshelf filled with books against a noisy wall and/or some thick wall hangings can do wonders). Or try investing in a great pair of headphones
7. Take regular misophonia holidays – Go for regular walks in the park… try mindfulness or meditation… give yourself the space to switch off and take time out from the misophonia