Why parents, partners and siblings are our biggest misophonia triggers

by | Jan 22, 2020 | Articles | 24 comments

misophonia paradox

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 not 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 dampen the noise or 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).

In summary

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.

Let’s run through the key points again:

– We spend more time with our loved ones. 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.

24 Comments

  1. Julie M

    You nailed it, Tom. Thanks for another great article.

    Reply
      • Lindsey

        I laughed when I read this because in my case it is so accurate but also because I seriously thought it was just me. It was Dad who triggered my misophonia, he was also the person I probably loved most in the world. Though not necessarily who I spent the mist time with? Now unfortunately it is my husband and even more so recently because he’s started working from home. AAARGH. The dynamics of the house mean I can hear everything ….. all day if I’m home too. And yes he gets the withering glares!

        Reply
        • Allergic to Sound

          Haha, no matter how much I learn about the brain and practice breathing and self control, the one thing I never seem to be able to stop myself from doing is the withering glares!

          Re: Your dad. I know exactly what you mean here. In fact I can say the same about my work. Why does one person trigger me so much more than the others? We’re all in the same room and all spend roughly the same amount of time together, perhaps even slightly less so with this person.

          I don’t think it’s a perfect equation in the sense that the person you spend the most time with automatically = biggest trigger. I think there are some other factors involved including how loud and how much ‘presence’ they may have as well.

          Obviously it’s hard for us to judge because we’re hypersensitive to sound, but I would guess that the intensity of triggers are a combination of:

          1. Time spent with person 2. Proximity to them (do they sit where I can see them out of the corner of my eye as opposed to head on. Sounds odd but makes a difference to some of us) 3. How loud they are (no blame here, but some people seem to eat more loudly, cough more and so on). 4. Some more nuanced factors that we haven’t uncovered yet 😉

          Reply
          • Lindsey

            Looking back I don’t think My Dad was aware of the fact the sounds he made sniffing, chewing, whistling etc were a trigger to me yet strangely I think he might also have had misophonia too, could it be genetic?

          • julie Chesters

            I agree. %
            Familiarity breeds comtempt. The more we are around a person the more we judge them, no there habits, traits simularities. So we await for the familiar. We catch that ball automatically. We over analyse. Become over sensative, over stimulated and over re active.

  2. Alan

    Thank you. It’s good to know I’m not alone.

    Alan

    Reply
  3. Michael

    Good piece – thank you. I think another element in the mix sometimes with loved ones or close family members is the inflated sense of grievance when triggered.

    With strangers we might make instant judgements about their behaviour (and their character) but with people close to us, especially if we have tried to explain to them about misophonia and what triggers it, the unspoken reaction can also involve something like: “you, of all people, should know better – so maybe you don’t actually care that much about me and my feelings”

    Also: sometimes people genuinely don’t treat your concerns as seriously as you would like. This is obviously more wounding when it’s the people closest to you. Some family members (siblings especially) might even take pleasure in provoking. That kind of behavior will of course generate a bigger response to the trigger.

    Reply
    • Allergic to Sound

      Excellent point, Michael and I totally agree. I’ll try and add to the article when I get a mo.

      Reply
  4. Lindsey

    Thank you, I’ll read it this evening.
    I don’t know how you manage in an office, don’t think I could. I find myself having to look at the person making the sounds annoying me, it’s a surprise I haven’t been verbally abused for staring at people!

    Reply
  5. Payton

    This is my life. Also, it gave my wife a great resource to better understand where I am coming from. There are always degrees of “dealing with it” that I employ but that’s not always enough. Thank you for this insightful read.

    Reply
  6. Emma

    Thank you so much.. very relatable, especially after the conservations I have had with my new boyfriend past weeks. Yet it stays very difficult, now that our relationship is advancing, my misophonia too, which I notice as he forms more and more a trigger to me (depending on the day, moment, time, my mood basically liked you described too).
    Still, it makes me feel hopelessly sad. I love this guy so much and I am confident we form a good couple (especially given the way he reacts upon me and the misophonia), but as I phrased it: I am just afraid to start hating him more and more. It is risky to spend more time together, which is what I want, but which will at the same time go hand in hand with ‘developing’ more triggers..

    This I wanted to share with all of you.. maybe it sounds familiar to you and/or you have some good advice. I think more me-moments will be necessary, like a short meditation after coming home and then entering in together moments such as dinner time etc..

    Well, good luck everyone!

    Reply
    • Allergic to Sound

      You’re very welcome, Emma!

      It sounds like you’ve got a really loving relationship. The fact that you’re aware of – and wanting to engage with – how the misophonia might be affecting you both suggests to me that you’ll work through this together as a team. As you say ‘me-moments’ are important because one thing you can control in all of this is you. So if you need some time out or a mediation when you get home to decompress, great. If you need to discuss whether you have music or TV on in the background when you eat together that’s something that’s quite easy to do as well.

      I also think there’s nothing wrong with normalising the misophonia, or rather your reaction to it. For example, if you had short-sightedness it would be a completely normal (even expected) reaction to put glasses on to read some small text. This would be much more effective, than say getting angry at the text, or your eyes, or the author of the book. By the same token if your partner starts eating an apple in front of you, rather than boiling up inside and feeling anger and resentment you could just go to a different room and do something else for 5 or 10 minutes. This is something I do all the time and it short circuits all that exhausting emotion and internal dialogue because it gets you away from the trigger in seconds and focuses you on other things. Obviously it’s not practical in all situations but can certainly works at home when you’re spending time with someone you love.

      Reply
  7. Shane

    Thank you. This explains what I’ve felt for years.

    Reply
    • Allergic to Sound

      You’re very welcome, Shane. Glad you found it helpful!

      Reply
  8. Annette

    Thanks so much. One of my boys was a big trigger. I loved reading to the children, but he breathes noisily, through his nose with his mouth partly open. Drove me crazy and I stopped reading to him:(
    If only I had known, I would have used earplugs or a noise-cancelling headset, and kept on reading. He missed out so much – and he interpreted it as me withdrawing from him personally. Knowledge is power!

    Reply
  9. Laura sylv

    Thank you for the article, I can relate to everything you’ve written, it would be helpful to show the people I live with so perhaps they can get a sense of what it feels like and it’s not just me being ‘hard work’

    Reply
  10. Poppy

    Brilliant article. As mum to two daughters with this it had been a great insight. Thank you.

    Reply
  11. Padraig McGahan

    I wholeheartedly agree. I am a 54 year old male and have really suffered in (for the most part) in silence, afraid to say that it bothers me because of what people may say or feel.
    The earliest memory of me reacting to this was at the dinner table at home as a teen. I am the 2nd child of 6 and after listening to my older brother and my father “eating like pigs” I (normally really shy and quiet) lost it, I overturned the table covering everyone with the food and in a rage screaming at both of them, I must have came across as Beelzebub because I can still see everyone looking scared but saying nothing…. not a great memory to carry.
    I do have quite a few triggers, any noise with the mouth, slurping, slapping, smacking of chewing gum or others kissing, tapping, clicking a pen, the glug sound as liquid leaves a vessel and also the sound made when it enters the vessel or even someone sending multiple texts can send me lala.
    I always thought it was something that only I suffered from and until recently, when my partner (to whom I eventually confided in) decided to search online… “Glory be.. there is a name for it”, “I’m not the only one” were my initial thoughts and maybe now those close to me could help, it has somewhat but that isn’t always the case, unfortunately.
    But…. someday, maybe we can all find a better way to get by instead of leaving the room or not going out to lunch with work colleagues

    Reply

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