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How Misophonia Affects my Anxiety

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Before I start, let’s have a quick show of hands. How many of you have heard of misophonia? I’m willing to bet that it’s not many. Not because I’m showing off about my knowledge of weird words or anything, just based on the fact that, faced with the request, ‘please stop; you’re driving my misophonia up the wall ‘, most people say, ‘what are you on about? Stop being so dramatic!’

Luckily for you, I’m dedicating a full blog post to it. Buckle your seatbelts!

Literally translated, misophonia means ‘hatred of sound’, but as a condition it’s so much deeper than that. For someone already riddled with anxiety disorders (social and general), even the sound of someone breathing can send me into a tizzy.

‘How utterly ridiculous!’ I hear you cry. ‘Breathing is a NATURAL PHENOMENON. How am I supposed to STOP BREATHING?’

And to that I reply, ‘Now who’s being overdramatic?’

Let me show you my thought process when someone’s breathing audibly in a quiet room:

‘Ok, that’s loud. Maybe they’ve got a cold. Or asthma. Breathe. Are they ok? Oh God, what if they think I’m trying to outdo them on the breathing scale? Don’t be obvious. Just breathe slowly. Not that slowly, now you can’t breathe!! Has their breathing got louder now? They’re trying to assert breathing dominance. They hate me for being here. Aaaaaand here comes the acid in my cement-mixer lungs.’

And then, if I have no headphones to hand, I have to leave the room.

I get the same sort of reaction to people touch typing. Again, this sounds random and very bizarre, but I just cannot listen to someone touch typing very quickly and forcefully.

I have no idea why touch typing is a trigger. I’ve wondered if it’s because I can’t touch type in the traditional sense (I tried but am cursed with stubby fingers that don’t move when I ask them to) and so I associate it with being accomplished and smart, and so the franticness implies that they’re so much better and more important than me and can do it quickly. `Look at me! Signing off my abilities with a heavy-handed space bar flourish!’

Weird, I know.

There’s also soft voices/whispering. If it’s one-to-one with me, then fine, but I am a big fuzzy ball of anxiety when stuck in a room full of murmuring – many conversations happening simultaneously on the bus, for example. This stems from social anxiety paranoia that someone’s talking about me, that whole buses are discussing the girl in the seat at the back where she always sits because routine makes her feel in control for the day. That low hum of conversation could be hiding many, many things, and it becomes a pressing sound, one that I can almost physically feel pushing me into a corner. I feel like a caged animal. The urge to escape is almost primal, and it turns into turmoil in my chest. It’s unbearable.

But it doesn’t always have to be about being inferior to someone for me.

Another main trigger is eating sounds – so chewing with an open mouth, lip smacking, what can only be described as the sloshing sound that old people make, when people go ‘ah’ after taking a sip etc. I cannot stand it, and it’s a form of contention between me and my family.

‘I can’t help making a crunching sound!’ They cry. ‘I’m eating crisps!’

No, you can’t, and that’s understandable. I’m not going to shout at you for eating crunchy foods (this is the girl who got through her dissertations on sharing packs of Walkers Chilli Sensations), but you could at least close your mouth to muffle it. That crunching sound might not be much to some people, but to my ears it’s an approaching jackhammer. Think about your reaction to a fork scraping across a plate, or nails across a blackboard, but dragged out. The sound actually elicits anxiety attacks. I become that Spongebob meme.

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Yes, it is bizarre that these natural noises should provoke such a bad reaction. My anxious mind is like Lucy Nichol’s meerkat (A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes, 2018), on high alert for any danger noises that I can’t escape from. So for me, misophonia doesn’t mean ‘hatred of sound’ so much as wariness. That low hum of the air con might be the ominous calm before the storm, and yet it’s filling the room and I can’t escape. That person in the cinema snaffling popcorn with their mouth open might (will) be ruining the film for those around them, but I am paralysed with anxiety in my uncomfortable fold-down seat because that crackling sound heralds doom for me. It gets worse if I can see them eating, frantically dipping into their cardboard pyramid, because they’re clearly frantic about something and it could be dangerous.

It’s that tangible pressure that I can’t block out. I told my friend that if I got the chance to dine with my heroes and even one of them started chewing with their mouth open, I would have to leave the table. Maybe crouch in the corner with my hands clamped over my ears whilst my chest and legs turned to jelly (I hate the image of mental illness sufferers as head-clutchers, but this is genuinely what I have been reduced to before. Sometimes under a blanket).

Weirdly, I can’t stand silence either. It amplifies all the little sounds. I have to have background music otherwise I get too anxious thinking about the sound of someone shuffling paper on the other side of the library.

A snowball effect of this is that I then become hyper-aware of any sounds that I myself might be annoying someone with. This is common in sufferers of social anxiety in any case, but if I catch myself typing quickly, I unconsciously slow down in case anyone around me gets annoyed. I’m painfully aware that my mouse clicks could be echoing around the office. If I’m eating crunchy foods in front of anyone, I cover my mouth, despite the fact my lips are sealed (this has led to me covering my mouth whilst eating anything up to and including candy floss). I put my metal cutlery down as gently as possible on my plate. If I let a door slam I am seized with panic over having annoyed whoever is in the near vicinity – nay, Australia, because they’ll surely have heard it. Koalas will have dropped out of trees with fright.

This is the mind of an anxious person.

I wish I was being overdramatic when I ask someone to please stop gulping so loudly when they drink their tea. I certainly feel that way – no-one else seems to bat an eyelid at the sounds I find unbearable.

Just remember the fork scraping across a plate. And try to understand.

-Katie Taylor

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