Do you find it annoying to hear the sounds of someone else chewing or slurping? This is a pet peeve for many people – but for some, small sounds like these pose a big problem.
Individuals experiencing a condition called misophonia or selective sound sensitivity syndrome can become anxious or enraged by small sounds such as other people eating, breathing, coughing, typing, a dripping faucet or other every day noises. Until fairly recently, these people have often been told they are simply over-reacting, but this view is changing now.
Misophonia (which means hatred of sound) is a newly recognized condition with little research surrounding it as yet. It is considered a cousin to tinnitus and is characterized by an involuntary decreased tolerance to specific sounds.
Not much is understood about misophonia yet, but it is thought to result from a physiological abnormality in the structures of the brain involved with processing sounds.
There is no good data on its prevalence, but the condition does seem to have genetic roots and begins typically in late childhood or early adolescence and gets worse over time. Often, it starts with sensitivity to just one kind of sound and gradually expands to include more noises.
Until now, many people experiencing this sensitivity have been mistakenly diagnosed with other problems when presenting their specific symptoms – they have been told they have a phobia or obsessive compulsive disorder, mania or an anxiety disorder.
Sometimes, misophonia is confused with another condition called hyperacusis – where sound is perceived as abnormally loud or physically painful. However, the two conditions are not the same. Indeed, the sounds that trigger rage or anxiety in misophonia are quiet, hardly audible noises rather than loud noises.
No effective treatment exists for misophonia. Most people go out of their way to avoid the sounds they can’t tolerate. Obviously, this can cause issues in relationships and social settings. When it is impossible to avoid the sounds, some people try to mask them by timing their own chewing to match the other, wearing earplugs or using white noise machines.
Some people feel better if they vocalize their discomfort by telling the person who is eating near them that the noise bothers them. Others find mimicking the offending noise can provide some relief to the feelings of anxiety and anger that arise.
More research into misophonia will help us to better understand the exact physiological cause of the condition and may also lead to more effective ways to deal with the symptoms.
Many times I have talked about the prevalence of depression. Of all the psychiatric conditions, depression and anxiety are by far the most common and major depression is thought to affect roughly eight percent of the population at some point in life.
Compare that with the less than one percent of people who experience schizophrenia or bipolar disorder and it seems a very large number. So what is it about depression that allows it to continue existing in our species at such a high prevalence?
We often think of depression as similar to an illness in any other major organ – simply a malfunction that needs to be treated. Of course, treatment is important and helps many people in their ability to function on a daily basis, but we still don’t know why the illness continues to occur in such abundance. Researchers have been studying this question for some time.
One theory involves the purpose or value of rumination – the process of pondering and thinking things over and over and over – that is one of the hallmarks of depression.
Individuals who self profess to be ruminators do seem to be more prone to depression as well as to being unnerved by stressful events. Therapy often encourages people to get out of the habit of excessive rumination as it can lead to fixating on flaws or problems and thus extend negative thoughts.
According to proponents of this theory of depression, this kind of thinking is not necessarily bad but may be a useful skill for us to learn from our mistakes or sort through complex problems. Some go so far as to say depression is a way of forcing the mind to focus on its problems.
A couple of studies have found some benefits to this kind of analytical thinking. One found that individuals with depression seem better able to make complex decisions because they are more willing to spend the time to thoroughly analyze the options and information put before them.
Certainly, there have been and are today many great thinkers, artists and poets whose melancholy has undoubtedly informed and inspired their craft. I have talked about this in past columns.
At the same time, research has also shown individuals with major depression experience cognitive impairments in other areas and imaging studies have shown cumulative damage to some areas of the brain with each episode of depression experienced.
Perhaps an argument can be made that depression has some helpful element to it when it is mild – however anyone who has experienced a severe depression can tell you the benefits are far outweighed in these circumstances. A severely depressed person who cannot be motivated to get out of bed or who is experiencing a psychotic episode is not going to be a more effective problem solver.
I don’t believe treating depression will eliminate a person’s ability for complex or analytical thought – but it will help in getting back to enjoying life.
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