Florida researchers find one in five college students may have misophonia – a hypersensitivity to sounds like lip smacking and pen clicking

Almost one in five college students is so sensitive to common, annoying sounds like lip smacking and pen clicking that they may have misophonia—a little-understood condition where people overreact to irritating noises. The results come from a University of South Florida study published in October 2014, where 483 students self-reported what sounds irritated them, and how they reacted. Among students who reported the strongest misophonia symptoms, more than half reported that their school and work lives suffered because of their discomfort and avoidance of triggering situations. While researchers have studied individual cases before, and even proposed diagnosis criteria for misophonia, this is the first study to estimate how widespread misophonia may be.

But do one in five people really have misophonia? Probably not. The authors point out that what they found among mostly white, female, middle-class college students is likely different from what they would find if they studied people who aren’t students at the University of South Florida. I also wonder how much the type of specific sounds varies between cultures. If the type does vary with culture, I would expect Americans to be more sensitive to loud eating noises, which are considered bad table manners.

Wu MS, Lewin AB, Murphy TK, & Storch EA (2014). Misophonia: incidence, phenomenology, and clinical correlates in an undergraduate student sample. Journal of clinical psychology, 70 (10), 994-1007 PMID: 24752915

Can’t stand the sounds of chewing, loud breathing, or pen clicking? Dutch psychiatrists propose that may be the symptom of a new disorder

In 2013, Dutch psychiatrists proposed that misophonia – a hypersensitivity to common, irritating noises like eating, loud breathing, and pen clicking – be classified as its own psychiatric disorder. After evaluating 42 Dutch patients with the disorder, the psychiatrists concluded that their symptoms didn’t fully match those of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder or autism spectrum disorder. By proposing that misophonia get its own criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – a classification system used by doctors, lawmakers, and insurance companies – the psychiatrists have taken the first step towards helping doctors recognize misophonia patients, and towards pursuing research into the disorder’s cause and treatment. Despite the small number of test subjects, the psychiatrists were able to find consistent patterns. Most of the patients reported that their earliest memories of misophonia were of a profound disgust at hearing their families eat. But unlike with other phobias, this disgust quickly became uncontrollable anger – and the patients reported lashing out verbally (or even physically) at the person making the noise. However, the patients considered their overreaction unacceptable, and were stressed and uncomfortable at the prospect of hearing triggering noises and losing self-control. Many coped by avoiding socializing or wearing headphones to mask noises. But what is causing such a stressful reaction in the first place? The psychiatrists speculated that it may be caused by recurrent conditioning – basically, the patients developing the habit of disgust. They also suggested that misophonia may be part of a more general overreaction to many stimuli, like noises and certain sights. Despite these speculations, the psychiatrists cautioned that because our understanding is still limited, it’s difficult to hypothesize about misophonia’s cause.

Reference: Schröder A. & Damiaan Denys (2013). Misophonia: Diagnostic Criteria for a New Psychiatric Disorder, PLoS ONE, 8 (1) e54706. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0054706