For some it is the sound of a bouncing basketball. For others it is the clearing of a throat. For Dr Jane Gregory the list includes pigeons, ticking clocks and the sound of popcorn being eaten.
“I cried on the plane the other day because I couldn’t figure out the volume on my new headphones and so I couldn’t block out the sound of a guy sniffing,” she says.
Gregory is among those who experience misophonia, the phenomenon whereby particular sounds can prove unbearable, triggering emotions from anxiety and panic to shame and anger.
Now in her book, Sounds like Misophonia, the upbeat academic from Australia is on a mission to explore what’s behind the phenomenon, and to help those affected cope.
Gregory, a clinical psychologist at the University of Oxford, suggests misophonia is far from being a simple sensitivity to sound. It can be fed by a complex interplay of factors, including a lower ability to filter out certain noises, the association of negative meanings with particular sounds, and the burden of feelings associated with an emotional response to them.
But the book also offers exercises based on cognitive behavioural therapy to help readers understand the origins of their misophonia, reframe the meanings they attach to sounds and develop new coping strategies.
“My goal is for people to actually have some change as a result of the book,” says Gregory.
Misophonia is thought to affect around one in five people in the UK. But it is debated whether severe cases should be considered a clinical disorder and, if so, whether they should be classed under a different name.
While Gregory says her misophonia is manageable, for some it can cause significant problems.
“There are some people who do experience it to that extreme where it affects them on a day to day basis,” she says. “They’re quitting their jobs, they’re struggling in relationships. Or they [are] suffering through it and therefore are just distressed a lot of the time or really anxious about sounds.”
Yet, as Gregory notes, the phenomenon was largely unknown until the 2010s.
“Most adults with misophonia grew up with no idea about why they reacted the way they did to sounds,” she writes, adding: “Many of us concluded we were batshit crazy.”
But new research is changing the landscape.
In one study, researchers asked people with high and low traits of misophonia to listen out for a “trigger” sound in the presence of a masking sound. The results revealed both groups detected the trigger just as easily. “The person with misophonia had a more intense reaction, but only after they identified what the sound was,” adds Gregory.
Those results, she says, suggests people with misophonia are not inherently better at detecting particular sounds, like a sniff or a rustle – rather they might be listening out for them more in everyday life, or simply be not as good as others at tuning them out – a trait, Gregory speculates, that might have offered our ancestors an evolutionary advantage, such as helping them detect stealthy predators.
Another implication of the research, Gregory says, is that it is not just the auditory features of the sounds that are causing strong, negative reactions but the meaning that has been attached to them.
An obvious example would be a strong reaction to the jingling of a dog collar after being frightened by an aggressive canine.
But not all trigger sounds have a simple origin: as Gregory points out, she is affected by the sound of pigeons for no discernible reason.
In some cases, she adds, a strong response to a sound can reflect difficult memories.
“It’s certainly not about trying to blame parents, but we do know that the way that other people respond, and the way that we interpret an event in childhood, can shape the way we respond later in life,” she says. For example if someone is ridiculed or chastised for complaining about a sound as a child, their resulting feelings may help fuel intense reactions as an adult.
For some, a sound only triggers an emotional response when it comes from a particular source or person. That, Gregory writes, could relate to research that has found intense emotional reactions in general are often linked to the breaking of social exchange rules. If someone closely associated with us is noisily chewing pasta with their mouth open, that violation, she suggests, might feel more harmful than if a stranger were chomping away.
Perhaps surprisingly, Gregory even suggests misophonia might be contagious, revealing that by being alert to sounds that might trigger Gregory, her husband now feels angry when he hears them himself.
Indeed, Sounds like Misophonia is often deeply personal: at one point Gregory’s dive into her own triggers leads to a touching conversation with her child in which her assumptions around their actions, and her response to them, are thrown into disarray.
Gregory hopes her book will offer much needed support for those who are too often told to simple ignore sounds, or ask others to stop making them – an attitude she gives short shrift.
“The emotional reaction is much more complex than just being annoyed. Some people literally feel like their body is in danger or that they’re being violated or intruded upon. They feel trapped and helpless when they encounter these sounds,” she says.
“If you think it’s nothing, then you’re not experiencing what this person is experiencing.”