Misophonia, Hyperacusis and Other Sensitivities
— The Physical Aspect of Being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)
Misophonia can be a physical manifestation of your sensitivity. Neuroscientists have long been investigating the different ways in which our nervous system reacts to sounds, and have found that certain people are more auditory sensitive than others. As a result of having thin energetic boundaries, you are extremely sensitive to your surroundings.
What Is Neurodiversity?
People’s brains vary. Research has validated that some people are born with certain kind of biochemical, or neurological makeup that can make them more emotionally or intellectually intense, sensitive, and more open to external stimuli than the general population.
Neurodiversity is a biological reality; the term describes the infinite variation in our ways of functioning as human.In fact, the idea that there is one “normal” or “healthy” way of perceiving and being in the world is merely a cultural construct (Foucault).
Nowadays, understanding of mental health and health are often confined to boxing people based on a disorder or diagnosis. Whilst there is certainly tremendous value in acquiring a formal diagnosis (accessing the right treatment, feeling validated for the difficulties, realising that one is not alone, research), such ‘one size fit all’ mentality has its limitations.
The neurodiversity paradigm suggests the diversity embedded amongst us, though challenging to meander at times, make us stronger as a species, as communities, and as people. Having a group of individuals who functions more intensely in the world is not only a natural form of human diversity, it is also an essential factor in our evolution and the progression of our collective consciousness. This perspective is the opposite of the medical model, which contends that there is a ‘normal’ and desirable way of functioning, and the rest are disorders.
Awareness and information about individual differences are invaluable in that they can help you make sense of your life history. By reviewing events and difficulties that you have experienced through a new perspective, you can realise where many of the old hurtful, uninvited commentaries might have come from, and be liberated to embark on a journey of true self-discovery.
Environmental Sensitivities and Energetic Boundaries
In their seminal work ‘Healing Developmental Trauma’, Heller and LaPierre (2012) discuss the idea of ‘energetic boundaries’ and how these boundaries can be compromised.
Our energetic boundaries constitute the three-dimensional space that is above us, below us, and around us. It buffers us and regulates our interaction with other people and the environment. We are all to some degree aware of the impact of a compromised physical body— try imagining someone standing too close to you in public transport. However, unlike physical boundaries, energetic boundaries are invisible. Thus, the experience of a boundary rupture can be puzzling and distressing. For instance, you may not be able to recognise clearly when and how your energetic boundaries are being violated.
People with intact energetic boundaries are able to have an internalised sense of safety, and a capacity to set appropriate limits with others and the world around them. However, where there is a chronic early threat, you may struggle to fully develop these energetic boundaries.
You may become extremely sensitive to your surroundings. Sometimes, you can appear psychic and be able to energetically attuned to others and the environment. On the flip side, you can feel swamped or invaded by other people’s energies and emotions. Damaged boundaries can also lead to the feeling of “spilling out” into the environment, not knowing the difference between self and other, inner from outer experiences.
Environmental sensitivity is another telling sign of having compromised energetic boundaries. Because intact energetic boundaries are needed to function to filter environmental stimuli, without it, you may feel extremely raw, as if you are ‘walking around with no skin’. You will feel constantly flooded by environmental stimuli, including ‘human contact, sounds, light, touch, toxins, allergens, smells, and even electromagnetic activity’ (Heller and LaPierre, 2012, p. 157) .
The inability to filter external stimuli makes the world seem continuously threatening, leading to a constant state of tension and hyper vigilance. As a result, you may feel the need to isolate yourself. As you don’t have an adequate internal sense of safety and energetic boundaries to count on, you may have defaulted to using minimising contact with other human beings in order to feel safe.
Here are some of the questions drawn from a Checklist developed by Heller and LaPierre (2012) on symptoms that may indicate difficulty with the connection (with self and others) due to early trauma.
Do you suffer from environmental sensitivities or multiple allergies?
Do you have migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, or fibromyalgia?
Did you experience prenatal trauma such as intrauterine surgeries, prematurity with incubation, or traumatic events during gestation?
Were there complications at your birth?
Have you had problems maintaining relationships?
Do you have difficulty knowing what you are feeling?
Are you particularly sensitive to cold?
Do you often have the feeling that life is overwhelming and you don’t have the energy to deal with it?
Are you troubled by the persistent feeling that you don’t belong?
Are you always looking for the why of things?
Are you uncomfortable in groups or social situations?
Does the world seem like a dangerous place for you?
Misophonia And Hyperacusis
Neuroscientists have long been investigating the different ways in which our nervous system reacts to sounds, and have found that certain people are more auditory sensitive than others; their auditory systems are described as being ‘over-responsive’ to stimuli. (Auditory over-responsiveness)
Hyperacusis is a condition that comes from a difficulty in the way the brain’s central auditory processing centre perceives noises.
Individuals with hyperacusis have difficulty tolerating sounds which do not seem loud to others, such as the noise from the dishwasher, fan on the refrigerator, or shuffling papers. Such sensitivity to the most ambient noise can have huge impact on the person’s day to day activities. Hyperacusis may be a result of injury or trauma, and can develop gradually over time. Conditions associated with hyperacusis include Post-traumatic stress disorder, Chronic fatigue syndrome, Epilepsy, Tinnitus, Migraine headaches and Depression. Currently, there are no specific corrective surgical or medical treatments for hyperacusis. However, sound therapy may retrain the auditory processing center of the brain to accept everyday sounds. This works on the basis of neuroplasticity (Brout, 2018), and should not be confused with psychological interventions such as CBT or exposure therapy.
Misophonia is a neuro-otological diagnosis in which certain auditory stimuli are being interpreted by the brain as threats. The condition was established in 2001 by American otolaryngologists Pawel and Margaret Jastreboff. They observed that some people reacted to sounds such as chewing, keyboard typing, and coughing, with high levels of irritability, elevated heart beat, muscle tension and sweating, along with other stress responses and strong negative emotions.
Hyperacusis and misophonia are different conditions. Unlike people with hyperacusis, individuals with misophonia respond particularly strongly to repetitive and pattern-based sounds.In hyperacusis, the response to the sound was felt as physical pain in the ear canal. In misophonia, the reactions were more emotional, involving fear, panic and irritability, and go alongside other physical stress reactions such as racing heart and tight chest, but dissipate when the noise goes away. In hyperacussis, the louder the noise, the greater the pain, while in misophonia, it was not the loudness that constitute the reactions; Regardless of the sound’s loudness and frequency, the emotional response and whole-body contraction are instantaneous.
Existing research on the cause of misophonia is limited. So far, we know that auditory over-responsivity is related to the part of the brain called the amygdala, which plays an important role in the body’s fight/flight/freeze processes. Although physiological responses are induced as a result of triggering noises, misophonia is neurological in nature, and is not a psychiatric disorder. Therefore, psychological interventions such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or ‘Exposure Therapy’ actually make the condition worse rather than better.
According to the Misophonia Management Protocol (MMP), one management approach is to add background noise to your day to day life, combined with some form of cognitive therapy. Here are some products that you may find helpful (I am not commissioned by any of these products or companies, they are chosen based on my own experience and clients’ feedback).
The sound of rushing air (white noise) is produced in 10 unique variations. It is one of the more powerful models and is loud enough to cover day-to-day noises. Generally widely recommended by reviewers. This is an international model and would require an adapter.
DOHM is slightly different to the Lectro Fan. The sound is not electronically generated. I personally prefer Dohm as it feels more ‘natural’- it is literally just ‘a fan in a box’. It is much quieter, though. It comes with two speeds and adjustments for volume and pitch.