As humans we relate more easily to things we experience firsthand.
Like the pain of stubbed toe…
Everyone knows the feeling, that sharp, throbbing pain.
When we see it happening to others we almost feel a physical jolt in our own bodies. We know exactly how that person is feeling…
We make the obligatory “Ooo” sound, give them some space and then say things like: “oh, your poor thing”. If we are feeling particularly good natured we might even offer to make them a cup of tea.
We experience this empathy because what has just happened is within our realm of experience. We’ve all done it, we’ve all felt it and we get it.
But what about when we’re dealing with something a little less clear? Something where we’ve sort of had an experience in that area… but not exactly.
Like back pain for example.
Let’s say you’ve experienced having a sore back, but not chronic lower back pain. You can identify with how frustrating and limiting it can be to have a sore back… but you don’t fully understand what it’s like to wake up with severe pain in your back everyday for weeks on end…
… and all the side effects that come with it. The headaches, the mood swings, the nausea which may come with taking too many painkillers.
You may not be able to relate to it directly yourself, but you know it’s a thing.
You have friends, colleagues or family members who suffer with chronic back pain and you know that it’s real – so you can feel some sympathy.
In these two examples we’ve looked at two common human responses:
1. Empathy: When we have direct experience of something another person is going through.
2. Sympathy: When we have indirect experience of something another person is going through. (This could be through conversations with others or through reading or research).
Both of these require either experience or some level of understanding.
Now let’s do something drastic… let’s remove both experience and understanding from the equation.
Misophonia is such an alien concept it can be hard for non-sufferers to comprehend
To most people misophonia simply doesn’t make sense.
Sound causes pain, frustration, anger…? Really? Whaaaaat?
It like being told that the hat you are wearing on your head is causing someone else physical pain. That’s how strange it sounds to people who don’t have or aren’t familiar with the disorder.
Forget for a moment you have misophonia and take a look at these two statements:
1. The way you wear your hat on your head causes me physical pain
2. The way you eat your soup with a spoon causes me physical pain
Both sound pretty unusual if you have never experienced that sensation or studied either condition.
But here’s the thing…
There are some elements of misophonia that people without the disorder can relate to instantly.
It’s the secondary feelings like anger, frustration, fear and upset which we can feel during a misophonic episode.
These are emotions and feelings that everyone, the world over, recognises.
Unfortunately that’s also a problem.
When we discuss misophonia, it’s the secondary feeling which tends to get pounced on:
“SOUNDS MAKE YOU ANGRY! THIS IS AN ANGER DISORDER! YOU ARE AN AXE WEILDING PSYCHOPATH”
Misophonia is not an anger disorder.
Here’s a definition of an anger disorder from someone who has spent a lifetime studying anger disorders.
“Anger disorders describe pathologically aggressive, violent or self-destructive behaviors symptomatic of and driven by an underlying and chronically repressed anger or rage.” Stephen A. Diamond Ph.D, Psychology Today
The key bit to note here is ‘chronically repressed anger or rage’, or in other words, stored up anger. This is a different disorder altogether.
There is no more anger ‘in’ someone who has misophonia than there is ‘in’ someone who hasn’t.
This confusion, while understandable, is extremely detrimental for sufferers. It stifles our progress in explaining and developing treatments for the disorder. It also makes it much harder for parents and loved ones to help.
We’re missing out a crucial step: anger, fear or frustration is the by-product, not the cause
Let’s put misophonia to one side for a moment.
Imagine for a moment you have a disability which requires you to use a wheelchair.
It’s a cold, wet Monday morning and you’re heading off to a job interview you’re excited about. You’ve woken up early, got everything ready and planned your route so that you can get there on time.
Everything’s going well, you’re ahead of schedule and get off the train in great time. You know that you are just minutes from your final destination and you’re feeling pretty happy…
But as soon as you get onto the platform you realise you’re trapped.
There’s no ramp.
You look around frantically and realise that there’s no wheelchair access at all. The only way to get off the platform and out onto the street is via a huge flight of steps and there’s no one around to help you.
Even if you could find someone it would take at least 15 minutes to get both you and the chair up that flight of steps.
Whatever happens, you’re going to miss your interview.
In that moment you feel a rush of panic… and then a wave fear and anger and frustration. Fear that you are stranded… anger and frustration that you have no control of the situation.
The reason you feel all these things is because you’re in a hostile environment. Again, this is a scenario that you have no control over. You can’t magically make your legs work and you can’t control the landscape.
If you were to swear, or bang your fists, or cry, this wouldn’t be ‘weird’, it would be completely understandable.
To accuse you of having an ‘anger disorder’ in this scenario would be unfair. You’re in a vulnerable situation (through no fault of your own). You’re panicked and frustrated. When people are panicked and frustrated they have an emotional response.
It’s the same for someone with misophonia.
Misophonia is a neurological disorder* that affects the way certain sounds enter the brain and are processed
* This is the most widely accepted theory backed by recent studies.
I’m going to get all neuroscienc-ey on you now but bear with me, because this stuff is important.
Misophonia is a hypersensitivity to certain aural stimuli (specific sounds) in the amygdala.
What is the amygdala?
It’s an ancient part of the human brain and it’s responsible for threat detection.
When the amygdala processes a sound that it perceives to be a genuine threat it throws the alarm switch.
It does this automatically.
This is very important. It’s not something you can switch on or off manually. It’s not a choice, not something you can make a conscious effort not to trigger.
When this alarm is raised it sets off what’s known as the ‘freeze-fight-flight’ response.
This is the exact same response we experience when we’re in imminent physical danger. For example if you’re suddenly confronted by a man with a knife. Different stimuli may be involved but it’s the same neurological response.
People with misophonia have a hypersensitivity to certain sounds.
Imagine the gain dial on a microphone turned all the way up and tuned into a certain frequency. Now imagine this is your brain. For someone with misophonia, the way our brain receives and processes this sound information is amplified.
That’s why the freeze-fight-flight response is triggered for seemingly ‘nothing’ sounds.
Now, we don’t know exactly what shape this hypersensity takes at this stage. It’s likely to be either the sound going into the amygdala (the input) or being processed by it (the output). Within that there are deeper questions still. Whether it’s timbre of certain sounds… the frequency… the repetitive pattern… or a combination. It could also be linked with synaesthesia and an involuntary linking of different senses.
There are specific studies taking place right now which are trying to address these questions and I’ll update you as soon as I know more.
Putting the anger disorder myth to bed
Let’s finish up with another parallel. I want to drum home how absurd it is to view misophonia as an anger disorder.
Imagine you have appendicitis and someone keeps poking you in the appendix.
Apart from the obvious pain, how would it make you feel?
Unless you have titanium skin, it would make you very angry.
But it wouldn’t make you angry because you have an anger disorder. It would make you angry because you are in pain and someone is poking you repeatedly.
That’s what misophonia can feel like.
If we can see or hear a disability or disorder people tend to ‘get it’.
Unfortunately when it comes to neurological disorders it’s harder for people without the disorder to understand.
If people could see the nerve centres lighting up our brains when we hear certain misophonic triggers it would go along way to demystifying the condition. It would make more immediate sense to people.
The good news is we can do this in expensive laboratories using fMRI scans, but obviously this information isn’t always readily accessible to family and friends.
Misophonia can be a cruel disorder. It often creates upset and tension and divisions in our relationships through misunderstanding. When someone with misophonia reacts irrationally to a certain sound it’s not because they have an anger disorder. It also not because they are angry with who that person is. It’s because that sound (whether it came from their mum, their colleague or best friend) has involuntary triggered a ‘freeze-fight-flight’ response.
This is such a confusing and overwhelming and stressful feeling for the misophone. In the swell of emotion, with the heart pounding and the brain working overtime, the instinct is often to blame the source of the sound in a desperate attempt to make it stop. “Why would anyone put me through this?! Stop!”
If we can be mindful of the condition and to acknowledge how strange and unfamiliar it must seem to others we can avoid a lot of hurt and misunderstanding. We can help them to understand the disorder and realise that this not something they’ve done.
When we run away, or stick our fingers in our ears it’s not because we are angry or upset with them as people – it’s the sounds.