Help! Every Sound I Hear Makes Me Anxious and Irritable

I cannot stand hearing just about anything. Whispering, chewing, breathing, sniffling, slurping, humming—all of these make me irritated, anxious, and can send me straight over the edge. My best friend has a baby-talk voice that is pretty much guaranteed to make me angry immediately. There are times when I'm extremely stressed that people talking normally makes me mad. I know logically this kind of stuff should be mildly annoying, but emotionally I can't handle it. I've cried just from listening to my dad eat soup or listening to my mom hum along to the radio as she cleans the kitchen. None of them bother me too much when I'm engaged—I can eat just fine around other people, but as soon as I'm finished, I have to bite my tongue and try to keep calm as my family finishes their meals. Occasionally I have to excuse myself entirely because I'm past my limit. Usually putting headphones on and drowning it all out is my solution, but several of my classes this year do not allow headphones at all since they're lectures and some of my labs don't allow them either. Sitting next to someone in lecture for three hours who is chewing gum is a nightmare scenario that happens regularly. I feel like such a b*tch if I ask them to spit it out, but if I don't I'm so agitated by it that I can't pay attention to what my professor is saying. Sometimes moving seats is an option and I'll take it, but sometimes it's not. I need a new solution. My parents think I'm just fussy and I need to get over it, but it's been going on for years and shutting out everything is no way to function in the adult world. I'm growing up, and I'd like to grow out of this. How do I do it? —Sounding Off
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Dear Sounding Off,

I find myself filled with compassion for you. It sounds like so many of the common, everyday sounds of life are extraordinarily uncomfortable for you. I imagine it makes engaging with the world around you nearly impossible. It must feel very limiting for you. I hope that you can find this compassion for yourself, too.

While I certainly cannot make a diagnosis from your brief note (nor is this my expertise), it sounds like you could be describing a condition called misophonia—a sound sensitivity disorder. It is not currently listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) or International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10), but it has recently been getting attention in the mainstream media and has therefore gained some exposure. There is a website, www.misophonia.com, that has news and information about the condition plus a support forum where you can connect with others.

Whether you are dealing with misophonia or not, I would recommend that you consider partnering with a therapist for support.

Whether you are dealing with misophonia or not, I would recommend that you consider partnering with a therapist for support. It certainly sounds like this is causing you considerable stress and anxiety. You mention that the sound of your best friend’s voice immediately angers you and that your parents think you are “fussy” and “need to get over it.” It sounds like your sensitivity to sound is also having a significant impact on your relationships. Working with a therapist will enable you to explore all of the ways you are impacted by this sensitivity to sound, and to develop some strategies for coping with them.

Whatever steps you take to address this, I hope you do seek out help. You mention sometimes feeling like a “b*tch” and wanting to “grow out of this.” These sentiments suggest you feel your sensitivity is a character flaw rather than acknowledging that you might well be dealing with a condition (misophonia). Regardless of the cause, you are struggling. Being kind and compassionate with yourself will get you much further than being punitive.

Best wishes,
Sarah

Sarah Noel
Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC is a licensed psychotherapist living and working in Brooklyn, New York. She specializes in working with people who are struggling through depression, anxiety, trauma, and major life transitions. She approaches her work from a person-centered perspective, always acknowledging the people she works with as experts on themselves. She is honored and humbled on a daily basis to be able to partner with people at such critical points in their unique journeys.
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  • Lanna

    Lanna

    January 8th, 2016 at 1:39 PM

    This is my daughter to a tee.
    The sound that others make when they chew or even just normal breathing drives her mad

  • Blakely

    Blakely

    January 9th, 2016 at 10:06 AM

    This is probably how someone with autism feels but is neevr quite able to pout it into words. Sensory overload?

  • Rosemary

    Rosemary

    January 10th, 2016 at 11:11 PM

    Hi, I empathise with your pain. I can relate to what your going through. There was a time when I was experiencing something similar after being under stress for a long period of time. I became highly strung and irritable. I would even react to the sound tracks of cartoons when my kids were watching them in the house. To deal with this I took a time out. Listening to spiritual music, practicing positive thinking, complementing myself for small achievements. Try some quiet time and talk to yourself more. Take time to walk talk to good friends and smell the roses outdoors. I wish you speedy recovery

  • Talitha

    Talitha

    January 12th, 2016 at 11:20 AM

    I suppose that ear plugs are not a feasible option all the time but I do sleep with them in because my husband’s snoring drives me to the brink sometimes.

  • Lynda

    Lynda

    January 12th, 2016 at 12:42 PM

    Can this be the same for smells? My husband is overly sensitive with smells and it drives himself to a fit sometimes.

  • TB

    TB

    January 17th, 2016 at 6:42 PM

    Please take a moment to read about this. I hope it helps.
    The Highly Sensitive Person
    hsperson.com

  • tina

    tina

    January 19th, 2016 at 10:41 AM

    This must make every day miserable for you!

  • Chris

    Chris

    October 3rd, 2018 at 12:15 AM

    I have very similar problem but for me it’s mostly music and traffic noise. after a lot of searching I finally happened to be watching a TED talk about depression and this was brought up as a rare but real side effect. It never crossed my mind as a possible cause as most would say music helps not hurts. I even like music but still find myself very irritated very quickly no matter what kind of music it is. If you suffer from depression as I do then this may be it. Depression is incredibly variable and can affect us in ways that aren’t so obvious and many don’t even realize that they are depressed. Just something to think about and look into. I suspect there are multiple reasons besides depression that people have these kinds of issues.

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