Olana Tansley-Hancock, from Ashford in Kent, has been suffering from misophonia since she was eight years old. The noise of her family eating was so unbearable, she would often eat her meals in her bedroom alone.
“I can only describe it as a feeling of wanting to punch people in the face when I heard the noise of them eating – and anyone who knows me will say that doesn’t sound like me,” she said.
The issue became harder to deal with when she moved away for university. “I found it spread to my housemates and to other noises and it all came to a head on a train journey when I had changed carriages seven times as the noise of people eating or rustling papers was unbearable.”
Police officers were called to shared accommodation in West Sussex this week, after reports that a fight had broken out over loud chewing. The news was shared on Twitter by police inspector Darren Taylor: “Team attended a somewhat tense situation yesterday in [Burgess Hill] as two tenants in shared accommodation were reported to be fighting each other...due to one of them eating their food too loudly?”.
Although these might sound like over-reactions, a study carried out by Curry’s PC World earlier this year, which surveyed 3,001 people across the UK, found loud chewing was the most hated sound by 49 per cent of respondents. Almost 55 per cent of women said it was their least favourite sound, while it was the most irksome to 43 per cent of men.
So why is the sound of chewing so irritating, and why does it affect some people more than others?
Why is the sound of chewing so irritating?
The NHS classes misophonia as a hearing sensitivity and says you may have it “if some sounds make you angry”. Note this is different to if some sounds make you anxious, which might be phonophobia.
The sound of chewing is one of many that people will find slightly irritating or uncomfortable. The sounds made by fingernails scraping on a chalkboard, repetitive sniffing, or water dripping are a few other examples.
For most, it is a minor inconvenience, which despite causing some annoyance, is not problematic enough to disrupt their day-to-day lives.
However, in others, these sounds can trigger a strong emotional or physical response in a condition known as misophonia.
“Individuals with misophonia, experience intense emotional and behavioural reactions to certain sounds related to eating, sniffing, breathing, slurping, burping and some other repetitive man-made noises, known as the trigger sounds,” Dr. Hashir Aazh, a specialist in misophonia rehabilitation tells The Independent.
Why does the sound of chewing affect some people more than others?
One recent study, published by researchers at Newcastle University compared brain scans of people who have misophonia with those who don’t.
The results showed that in people with misophonia, there is a “super sensitised” connection between the auditory cortex and the motor control areas related to the face, mouth and throat.
Dr Sukhbinder Kumar, a research fellow at the university that led the study, said the findings showed that this connection activates something called “the mirror system”.
The mirror system helps us process movements made by other individuals by activating our own brain in a similar way, Kumar explained.
He said: “We think that in people with misophonia involuntary overactivation of the mirror system leads to some kind of sense that sounds made by other people are intruding into their bodies, outside of their control.
“Interestingly, some people with misophonia can lessen their symptoms by mimicking the action generating the trigger sound, which might indicate restoring a sense of control. Using this knowledge may help us develop new therapies for people with the condition,” he added.
How does misophonia affect people’s lives?
In his upcoming book Misophonia and Hyperacusis: Neuro-Psycho-Audiological Perspectives, one of Dr Aazh’s patients shared their experience of struggling to deal with the emotions that come with misophonia.
“There were times that I could not control my anger and told [my family] or shouted at them that they should eat more quietly and that the noises that they were making were disgusting.
“I remember that I often stormed out of the room to eat my dinner on my own. As one would expect, my behaviours and words often offended my parents and started further arguments and unhappiness within our family,” they said.
Is there a cure?
While there is no cure, some specialists across the UK offer therapy to help people deal with the effects of misophonia.
“A specialised version of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help the individual to minimise the stress caused by their initial reaction to the trigger sounds and stop from escalating to a level that damages their quality of life,” Dr Aazih said.
Tansley-Hancock found some relief by making small lifestyle changes.
“I meditate and have reduced my caffeine and alcohol intake and I am always prepared – so take earplugs on a journey so I can watch a film and ask for headphones at the cinema so block out the sound of people rustling and eating.
“These steps have helped me manage and understand my condition better,” she said.
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