Mum was my biggest misophonia trigger growing up.
The day-to-day sounds she made (through no fault of her own) just seemed to trigger me more than anything else in the world. Far more than teachers, school friends or strangers.
It was as if every sound she made went through a magical amplification device… a device that made triggers even more frequent, even more intense.
Every cough, chew, sniff or crunch felt louder and somehow more insistent when it came from her. Triggers also seemed to be more constant, as if there were more of them.
If you’re reading this, thinking “YES, YES, I have this too!” don’t worry, what you’re experiencing is normal.
It could be your mum, your dad, one of your siblings, your partner or maybe someone you live with. The good news is this: despite what others may tell you (including your own inner critic), you’re not some weird, family-hating monster.
In fact, the majority of misophones cite family members as their greatest source of misophonia triggers. Every week I get emails from concerned and loving parents asking me if this is normal… or if they’ve done something wrong.
Why does the misophonia seem directed more towards them? What have they done to deserve special status?
The fact that triggers are more intense when they come from family members is incredibly confusing because on the face of it just doesn’t make sense. Why is the intensity of a trigger not the same no matter who it’s come from?
After all, if you have misophonia you’re triggered by the sounds right, not specific people? Surely you can’t pick and choose who triggers you, can you?
Actually we’re looking at it from the wrong angle. The intensity of a trigger is less to do with the person making the sound and more to do with what’s happening with the receiver.
We’ll dive into that in just a moment but first it’s important to get our heads around what happens during a misophonic episode.
Your immediate physiological reaction to misophonia triggers is pre-conscious
You don’t ‘hear’ a trigger sound, process it and then make a conscious decision to feel panicked.
The immediate physiological reaction you have when exposed to a trigger sound is pre-conscious.
In other words, for the most part, you cannot control that initial hormone rush or flood of emotion.
It’s a bit like getting pinched on the arm. You don’t make a conscious decision to recoil or flinch, you just do.
But here’s the problem…
The person on the receiving end of a misophonic episode doesn’t know that. So when you tense up, flinch, or throw them a withering glare it may feel to them as if you’ve made a conscious choice to react… to single them out.
And that’s where things can get complicated. Because they feel singled out (“You don’t react like that when you’re eating with so and so, why do it with me?”) they may start to wonder if it’s less about sounds and more about relationships. Specifically their relationship to you. This can lead them to question:
“Does this person really have misophonia?”
“Is misophonia even ‘real’ or is it just some sort of phase, a way of lashing out?”
“Is the issue more about their relationship with me?”
That’s the tragic thing about misophonia. It inadvertently hurts the ones we love most. These are usually the very people who champion and support us, yet in their eyes we appear to be angry at them (or behave strangely around them) for no reason.
Of course there IS a reason, a neurological reason, but alas… neurological maladies cannot be observed with the naked eye.
And so resentment builds and it becomes a vicious cycle. The person making the sound (a sound they probably don’t even realise they’re making) feels victimised and the person with misophonia feels like they’re not being taken seriously.
Everyone feels like they’re being got at.
If you’re struggling to communicate to your loved ones about this, here’s a tip…
Try to avoid confrontation ‘in the moment’. The worst time to explain the disorder and how it makes you feel is when you’re being triggered. Your blood will be up and there will likely be anger and frustration in your voice. Anger is the most difficult emotion to engage and empathise with. It immediately gets people on the defensive.
Very rarely will we convince others to see our point of view when we’re wide eyed and frothing at the mouth.
But let’s get back to the core issue:
If misophonia is a neurological disorder, why do some people trigger us more than others? How can it ‘pick and choose’?
To answer this we first need to accept that we’re not machines.
It would be much easier if we could say: “People with misophonia are always triggered by certain sounds with identical ferocity… regardless of who makes them.”
But it wouldn’t be true.
The way we process data, particularly sensory data, is incredibly nuanced.
We are not brains in vats and as humans we’re effected by a myriad of environmental factors such as:
Who we spend time with, where we spend time with them, what’s going on around us, how we’re feeling at the time.
Right now are you feeling cold… have you eaten… are you experiencing an adrenalin rush… are you happy or sad?
The environment we’re in and our internal state (we call this ‘8th sense’ interoception) is always in flux. That’s why we can’t reduce behaviour to a simple black and white equation.
For example, if you are already stressed misophonia trigger sounds will feel more intense. That’s because in a frenzied state it will take much less to push you over the edge. It doesn’t matter what caused the initial stress. It could even be something completely separate to the misophonia.
If you can learn be mindful of your current state: what level your stress levels are and the environment you’re in, you’ll have much greater success at preempting difficult situations.
Why mums, dads and loved ones are almost always our biggest triggers growing up
There are a number of hypotheses which help explain this bias.
If we can make inroads into unravelling this conundrum we can create better understanding and empathy on both sides.
Full disclaimer: It’s important to note that misophonia research is still in its infancy and we will get more clear cut answers as findings come in…
However, these are the top 3 factors that I believe contribute to the family-and-loved-ones-misophonia-intensity phenomenon:
1. You’re more exposed to triggers from family members
In a family environment everyone spends a lot of time in each others’ company. You’re more exposed to triggers from family members simply because you spend more time with them.
This is the most straightforward explanation. When we’re growing up we spend more time with our parents and siblings than anyone else in our lives. Because of this they are likely, by definition, to be our greatest source of triggers.
You see them every morning… after school… on the weekends… throughout the holidays. Families usually eat together regularly (rightly so) but meal times are kryptonite for misophones. It’s trigger central with chewing sounds, cutlery banging, slurping and so on.
Family members tend to get the blame for the majority of triggers, simply because they’re there.
But frequency of exposure is just one link in the chain…
2. You’re more likely to develop anticipatory trigger anxiety around loved ones
The more you’re exposed to triggers from individuals in a specific setting, the more likely you are to develop anticipatory anxiety.
This opens up a whole new can of worms.
Because you spend more time with your family you know them better than anyone. That includes the sounds they make and when they are likely to make them.
You subconsciously become very adept at knowing and predicting their behaviour. Specifically you become hyperaware when they’re most likely to make trigger sounds.
This creates a multiplier effect in the form of anticipatory triggers.
You start to predict that a trigger sound is coming… and because you’re waiting for it, you’re entirely focused on it and your stress levels go up because you anticipate the sound coming.
The principle behind this is not dissimilar to that of Chinese water torture. Victims were locked into a fixed position with water suspended over their heads. The water slowly dripped onto their heads over the course of several days.
These victims didn’t go mad because they were physically abused… they went mad because of the irregular drip. They can’t sleep, they can’t think. They’re locked in a kind of stress hypnosis. The unpredictability, the constant anticipation.
With misophonia, the stress of anticipating a trigger sound (in certain environments, among certain individuals) can put you on edge for hours on end. When you are exposed to a trigger noise in these scenarios the impact is significantly magnified because you’re already feeling tense and mentally drained.
3. It can feel like you’re trapped (even if you’re in a safe, loving space)
The only 100% effective misophonia coping technique is to get away from the noise.
That could mean leaving the room, going outside, or finding somewhere quiet to reset.
But when you’re growing up it can sometimes feel like there’s no escape from triggers at home. This is no-one’s fault, often it’s simply down to logistics and space.
At home you can be surrounded by people who love you but – unless you’re lucky enough to live in a very large house – you are likely to be in a fairly confined space. It may to be possible to find a room where there’s absolute quiet or an outdoor area to escape to.
And then there are mealtimes.
These are likely to be in the same room, with little or no background noise (to muffle and distract you from triggers), and with the same people day in and day out.
It’s that repeated exposure to triggers by the same people in the same confined space that can leave you feeling trapped and on edge.
School was a living hell for many of us. But at least at school you move around different classes during the day. At break times you can get some fresh air and let off steam and depending on your school you may have been allowed to eat your lunch somewhere quieter (away from triggers).
Most of us experience more frequent and more intense misophonia triggers around our loved ones.
While this might look, at first glance, like it’s a conscious bias, when you peel back the layers there’s a perfectly logical explanation.
– We spend more time with them. By definition you’ll experience triggers more frequently around the people you spend more time with BECAUSE you are spending more time with them. More time for them to make noises, more time for you to get triggered by them. It’s a space/time issue. By the same token you will experience no triggers around people you spend no time with.
– We eat with our loved ones on a daily basis. Mealtimes are typically THE most intense and traumatic times for misophones. And guess what? We eat with our loved ones more than anyone else in the world. For some of us that will be 3 meals a day (for others at least once or twice a day). That’s repeated exposure to the same triggers from the same person, in the same space, at our most testing time, day in and day out.
– You’re more likely to develop anticipatory anxiety (waiting for triggers) around the people you know best. You know their routines, you know their behaviour and you know the trigger sounds they’re likely to make and when they are likely to make them. The anxiety around triggers has already built to a fever pitch by the time they make the sound. This creates a snowball effect which makes triggers feel even more intense.
– It’s can be harder to escape trigger sounds at home with our loved ones. Home, for most people is a series of small, shared spaces where it can be difficult (if not impossible) to escape sounds. You can’t choose your environment growing up and even as when get older financial restrictions may prevent us living somewhere where there’s a quiet space.
I started this article by revealing that my mum was my greatest trigger growing up.
She’s not my greatest trigger anymore…
I haven’t lived at home for many years. While I still see her most weeks my greatest trigger now, by several light years, is a work colleague.
This makes perfect sense.
Why? Because work is the place I spend 8 hours a day, everyday… in a small confined space… with the same small group of people. Everyone eats at their desk at lunch time…
And hey presto! I get full blown, super-sized, heart-thumping, sweat-inducing triggers from virtually every noise (and movement) my colleague makes.
Some people will trigger you more than others in life. The fact that it’s usually our loved ones is a red herring, a misnomer.
The reality is you will be triggered most by the people you spend the most time with.
If you have any thoughts, reflections or comments I’d love to continue the debate in the comments section below.