Why do people with Misophonia become so upset and angry with sounds when they don’t bother most people?
The part of the brain that controls emotions is the limbic system. It’s part of the midbrain, located in about the center of your head and has several different parts. One part is the amygdala. The amygdala looks like an olive and its job is to prioritize everything that comes into your brain — the smells, the sights, the tastes, the sounds, the feelings. There are so many things in our world that we can’t handle being aware of all of them. Some need to be weeded out and some need to have high priority, it is the job of the amygdala to sort this all out. Now if the amygdala decides that whatever one is experiencing is unimportant, a low priority will be assigned to it and you may even forget about the stimulus. Did you put on shoes this morning? Did you forget about them? The amygdala doesn’t think it’s very important anymore. Your brain has habituated to the feel of the shoes. However, if your shoes are too tight and may cause harm or injury to your feet, you might feel pain, and your amygdala tries to get you to pay attention to this pain and fix the situation. It may be hard to habituate to this pain – it’s something that warrants your attention and needs to be taken care of.
If the situation is urgent enough, the amygdala starts other processes in motion for your reaction. This is where the fight or flight response kicks in. Is this a dangerous situation and do you need to act immediately? Your life may depend upon it and the amygdala will spur you on. What’s that unfamiliar and unexpected footstep? Who is in the room that shouldn’t be there? Where is that child going that is dangerous? The amygdala alerts your autonomic system and you react without thinking. It keeps you — and others — alive. There are more pathways going from the limbic system to the thinking brain than from the thinking brain to the limbic system. It’s by design. Our emotions – fear, anger, alertness – will get us moving faster than our thinking brain will.
In the case of Misophonia, it is thought that the amygdala has identified some specific sounds (and sometimes specific sounds by specific people) to be dangerous, unwanted, or maybe just plain unacceptable. The sounds really need to stop. The amygdala will focus on these sounds and locate them so that they can be stopped. And another part of the brain actually makes these sounds louder in the brain (better able to hear them and identify them) even if you don’t want them louder. Your brain thinks this is keeping you alive.
A person with Misophonia has a brain that keeps focusing on obnoxious and gross sounds. The amygdala keeps them on alert. They become anxious (When’s it going to stop? How can that person be so rude?), fearful (It’s going to start again. I have to sit at the dinner table again tonight and it will be TERRIBLE!) and angry (These people MUST STOP making this noise! It’s driving me crazy and they don’t care!). The emotions are taking over, and the person is out of control. Parents, teachers, and friends don’t have a clue.
Treatment strengthens those connections from the thinking part of the brain to the emotional, alerting part — the amygdala —to retrain the amygdala not to put the priority on these sounds that it once did. We retrain the thought process. Remember that our brains are plastic, and we can learn and change some pathways and, therefore, some habits. We want to start enhancing those connections from the thinking part of the brain to the emotional part, to retrain the amygdala not to put the priority on these sounds that it once did. Because Misophonia trigger sounds are so intrusive, it is necessary to cushion the reaction to these sounds so the brain and, thus, the sufferer can deal with them. If we eliminate the triggers altogether, the brain is unable to deal with them at all and the Misophonia actually becomes worse. It’s a balancing act that requires the help of a professional.
Researchers have not determined why some people have such severe sound sensitivities. It is apparent, however, that they are real and, in some instances, debilitating. But there is help.