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Crunch, sniffle, slurp: When the sounds of eating cause rage

Casey Shaw, with the apple in his mouth, goofs around with his siblings at a fall festival in New Hampshire. Because he suffers from misophonia, he frequently wears noise-reducing headphones to block sounds. Special to the Forum

FARGO — Few people would rank the noise of someone crunching potato chips among their favorite sounds in the world, alongside cooing babies and babbling brooks. On the contrary, it's pretty annoying.

For people diagnosed with misophonia, annoying sounds can be much more troubling — creating intense rage, anger and even an urge to flee.

Misophonia is literally defined as "hatred of sound" and was recognized as a psychological condition in 2001.

The condition is so new, it's hard to assess how many people have it. Anecdotally, people will tell you they cringe when their co-workers eat carrots at lunch. They may even have to change seats when the person sitting next to them on the bus starts popping their gum. But many people have yet to seek help for it.

"In my 40-year career, I've treated one person with (misophonia)," says Sanford Health psychologist Dr. Paul Revland.

Revland says misophonia, also known as selective sound sensitivity syndrome, often begins in childhood. He says it's not usually all sounds that bother misophonia sufferers. The most bothersome sounds include almost anything orally related — eating, chewing, breathing, snoring and yawning.

"We all have annoyances with certain sounds. If I'm in a room with someone clicking their pen for half an hour, I'm going to be bothered," Revland says. "But with misophonia it's more than that. It's not just an annoyance. There's anger and disgust, even anxiety — almost a feeling of panic."

Elena Shaw, formerly of Moorhead but now living in New Hampshire, understands what Dr. Revland is talking about. The mother of four says her 15-year-old son Casey started to complain about sound over the course of one night.

"One morning he just started plugging his ears and scrunching up his shoulders," she says. "He said to me, 'You don't understand this physically hurts my brain and hurts my head.' "

A study published in the journal "Current Biology" in February shows how misophonia can cause physical distress. In it, researchers at the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University in England found after hearing trigger sounds, misophonia sufferers experience physiological changes like increased heart rate and sweating. They concluded that misophonia sufferers have slight structural differences in parts of the brain associated with emotion regulation.

As researchers begin to figure out what causes misophonia, they too, can figure out how to treat it. Revland says one option is treating it the way you'd treat a phobia, with cognitive behavior therapy.

"Exposure therapy could help someone with misophonia learn to tolerate the sounds by being in the presence of sounds," he says. "But again, this is fairly new so it might not work for everyone."

He says other coping methods include using headphones or just walking away from the offending sounds. In more serious cases, a patient can be prescribed noise generators for the ear canal. Shaw was able to get them for her son at a speciality clinic in Edina, Minn.

"They look like little hearing aids, but they generate white noise which drowns out sounds that bother him," she says. Shaw hopes the earbuds will be "game changers" for her son.

While the sound generators do seem to help, she still finds her son's battle with misophonia "daunting."

"He has a hard time eating dinner with the family and when I talk to him, I stand 20 feet away so I'm not right there," she says.

Misophonia is also hard to explain to people who don't understand.

"He is a very polite kid," she says. "He'll always tell his teacher to 'have a nice day' when he leaves for the day, but when he's triggered he can sound rude and will just want people to shut up."

Worse yet, Shaw says doctors say some therapies can't begin for Casey until he's 19 or 20. In the meantime, they have no choice but to help Casey live with those everyday sounds that cause him so much pain.

"It might be a few years, but I'm still fighting for my son," she says.

Tracy Briggs

Tracy Briggs is a former TV anchor/radio host currently working as a features writer and video host for Forum Communications.

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