How to Support a Friend With Misophonia: Advice From a Sufferer
What Is Misophonia?
Misophonia is a little-known condition marked by high sensitivity to certain sounds. I first came across the term when a friend at university spoke to me about her condition. I caught myself saying, “That sounds like me.” I vividly remember asking a friend at school who was studying psychology: "Is there such a thing as being too aware of noises?" He just shrugged. When I met my friend at university, I finally got my answer.
Basically, people who suffer from misophonia have strong, negative emotional reactions to certain sounds. For myself, and a lot of people, the primary reaction is anger. I also get a feeling of distress or extreme discomfort that I can’t quite explain beyond “that is such a horrible noise—please stop it now!”. Ever heard someone scratch a plate with their fork then wanted to rip your own ears off? It’s like that, but with a wide variety noises and a more prolonged reaction.
What Causes Misophonia?
The sounds that trigger the misophonia reaction differs from person to person, but the most common—and my own personal nightmare—are “mouth noises." Chewing, slurping, crunching, even heavy breathing or sniffling. (Actually, just writing those words is making me a little uncomfortable. They are onomatopoeic after all!)
It’s the repetitive nature of the sound that elicits the emotional response, which is why sounds like typing, tapping, and scratching can be triggers for other misophonia sufferers.
Nobody has quite figured out the cause for misophonia, beyond it being a miscommunication in the brain. As it tends to crop up alongside other anxiety disorders frequently, it’s possible that it has similar roots—but that’s just conjecture.
Why Is It a Big Deal?
Misophonia can be quite debilitating, and can affect your relationships and daily life. I’ve almost fallen out with family members and friends over how loud they were eating, and from having to leave during meals. Once, a classmate was eating crisps at the start of a lesson and I was trying to power through it, but ended up yelling at him in front of everyone because I couldn’t stand it any longer. We were both quite embarrassed.
Everyone copes with their misophonia in different ways, and like other anxieties the easiest way is avoidance. Unfortunately this can mean isolating yourself during meals, missing social events where you know there will be things that trigger you, and in my case avoiding going anywhere by bus in case there’s a loud eater on there.
It can also mean having to put on headphones and listen to music to cover up the sounds that are upsetting you. Speaking from experience, this can come off as cold or rude if you’re with someone who doesn’t know about your condition.
How Can You Help?
If you have a friend who suffers from misophonia, you’ve taken a good first step towards helping them—learning about it! By reading this, you have shown that you want to make a positive impact on your friend by finding out how you can show your support.
Here are some tips for what you can do to help. It’s not an exhaustive list, and most of it comes from my personal experiences, so if you want further advice follow some of the links at the end of this article or speak to a healthcare professional.
1. Take them seriously.
If your friend is willing to talk to you about their misophonia, listen to them. Take in what they’re saying and show that you believe them. To the sufferer, misophonia can feel overwhelming. But sometimes we feel like people will think we’re being overly dramatic or sensitive. If someone you know is saying they have misophonia or a sound sensitivity, they really mean it.
2. Respond to their requests without fussing.
Your friend does know that it’s not your fault you have to eat with your mouth open because your nose is blocked. But asking you to wait until they’ve left the room to eat may be the only thing they can do before they have to scream. Acknowledging that it’s not your fault, and not your friend’s fault, will allow you to respond to any sound-related requests they have. If you can’t fulfill their request (for example, you absolutely can’t breathe through your nose right now), try gently suggesting an alternative (such as putting on some loud music).
3. Don't be offended if they have to leave the room.
Sometimes the only way to deal with a triggering sound is to remove yourself from the environment. Your friend doesn’t particularly want to avoid being around you, but if it’s the quickest solution to the problem right now, just accept it. They’ll come back! You can even text or message them when you’re done with the task that’s triggering them.
If they ask you to wait until they’ve left the room before you start doing said task, please do wait. They may ask you to leave with them if it’s another person or something in the environment that’s setting off the misophonia. Don’t make it a big thing, just going with them quietly is the best thing you can do for them in that situation.
4. Try not to eat noisy foods in public.
You can’t tell that someone has misophonia just by looking. The person sitting behind you on the bus might be humming to themselves with their fingers in their ears because you’re slurping that ice cream. (Yes, I have done that before, and had plenty of weird looks. It was preferable to shouting at them for enjoying their food.)
Don’t feel self-conscious about eating, as obviously eating is healthy! But be mindful of your eating noises if you’re in a public place, especially an enclosed space like public transport. Remember, other noises like typing and scratching can also be triggers.
5. Be mindful of their triggers.
Find out their trigger sounds as early on as you can, preferably at the time they decide to tell you about their misophonia. With the knowledge of their triggers, you’ll be able to minimise the chances of you setting it off by staying mindful.
You may forget from time to time, and you shouldn’t have it at the forefront of your mind the whole time you’re with them - there’s more to anxiety sufferers than their anxiety.
But as with most illness or disability, the more you practice awareness of their condition the happier they’ll be to hang out with you. You wouldn’t take a friend with a broken arm to an archery class; you wouldn’t take misophonia-suffering me to a chewing gum convention!
6. Be proactive about making your presence comfortable for them.
You don’t need to bring it up all the time that you’re actively avoiding their triggers, but your friend will notice that you are doing that. Remember, it’s about your friend, not your ego. Being proactive can also mean supporting them if they choose to go to therapy, helping them pick a self-help book, or letting them rave about the newest app that tracks their symptoms.
Being proactive doesn’t mean telling them they should be in therapy, or linking them to all the misophonia websites you can find. While some may find it helpful, others may consider it presumptuous. Support what they’re choosing to do, rather than trying to take the lead yourself.
Useful websites you can check out for further information about misophonia:
See your GP for advice if you’re suffering from misophonia. Information in this article is my personal opinion from my experience, and isn’t meant to replace professional medical advice. Or, you know, talking to your friend yourself and asking how you can help.