If the sound of someone chewing gum or slurping their tea gets on your nerves, you are not alone. Researchers say almost one in five people in the UK has strong negative reactions to such noises.
Misophonia is a disorder in which people feel strong emotional responses to certain sounds, feeling angry, distressed or even unable to function in social or work settings as a result. But just how common the condition is has been a matter of debate.
Now researchers say they have found 18.4% of the UK population have significant symptoms of misophonia.
“This is the very first study where we have a representative sample of the UK population,” said Dr Silia Vitoratou, first author of the study at King’s College London. “Most people with misophonia think they are alone, but they are not. This is something we need to know [about] and make adjustments if we can.”
Writing in the journal Plos One, the team report how they gathered responses from 768 people using metrics including the selective sound sensitivity syndrome scale.
This included one questionnaire probing the sounds that individuals found triggering, such as chewing or snoring, and another exploring the impact of such sounds – including whether they affected participants’ social life and whether the participant blamed the noise-maker – as well as the type of emotional response participants felt to the sounds and the intensity of their emotions. As a result, each participant was given an overall score.
The results reveal more than 80% of participants had no particular feelings towards sounds such as “normal breathing” or “yawning” but this plummeted to less than 25% when it came to sounds including “slurping”, “chewing gum” and “sniffing”.
However, Vitoratou noted not all those reporting a response had misophonia. “While there are a lot of sounds that irritate many people, people with misophonia express different emotional responses,” she said, noting this could include anger and distress or panic.
To dig deeper the team carried out clinical interviews with 55 of the participants, 26 of whom were self-diagnosed as having misophonia, allowing them to determine a cut-off score for participants strongly affected by triggering sounds. This score was used to glean the proportion of the whole group, and hence the UK population, similarly affected.
While it is not yet possible to give a definitive diagnoses of clinical misphonia disorder, the team said 18.4% of participants experienced misophonia to an extent that it was a significant burden on them.
What is more, the team found no difference by sex. “Before it was thought that maybe it’s more prevalent in females,” said Vitoratou, adding the team was now carrying out further research into misophonia, including whether there were different types.
Vitoratou added only 14% of those deemed highly affected by misophonia had heard the term before. “There are lots of people out there experiencing this and they don’t even have a name for it,” she said. “That’s heart-breaking.”