18 May 2015

Sound and fury

Flicking through my OCD self-help guide recently, I paused to review my answers to a questionnaire called the Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale and noticed that, under Miscellaneous obsessions, I'd put a tick against 'I am bothered by certain sounds or noises'. It must have been at least 10 years since I'd filled in this questionnaire and, in the interim, I'd forgotten ever coming across the issue of sound sensitivity in the context of OCD. 

I did research this problem many years ago, but the only online reference I found then was in relation to autism. I'd been forced to conclude that my agitation in response to certain sounds was simply the result of an impatient nature.

Coming across the issue in this questionnaire, however, prompted me to dig deeper. This time, searching the phrase 'sensitivity to sound and OCD' immediately threw up multiple websites and introduced me to the term misophonia - 'hatred of sound'. The condition is also known as Selective Sound Sensitivity Syndrome. Whilst there doesn't appear to be a definitive link between OCD and misophonia, these conditions often seem to go hand in hand.

The right - or, rather, wrong - noises take misophonia sufferers beyond mere irritation, into stress, anger or disgust. They can even become physically sick or incensed to the point of feeling violent towards the perpetrator. I can relate to this: as I become angrier, I'm unable to concentrate on anything else.

I read dozens of accounts from people describing the different sounds that troubled them, many of which mirrored my own pet hates. These include: 

  • Whistling - only last week I had to race around the supermarket to complete my shopping and escape a phantom whistler, whom I could hear no matter where I went in the store.
  • Plastic bags rustling - though only when someone else is fishing about in one.
  • People clicking pens or tapping their fingers.
  • Repeated sniffing or throat-clearing.
  • Repetitive speech habits, such as saying 'like' or 'you know' - offending callers to my local talk radio station drive me to switch off.
  • Repetitive melodies or song lyrics and long drawn-out words or notes - Bill Withers' Lovely Day springs to mind.

It may seem laughable to get so upset by sounds - which, incidentally, don't even have to be loud to cause a problem - but I was relieved to know I'm not the only one who feels this way. It was also strangely reassuring to find that it's not a personality failing, but an actual disorder.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/

The problem is exacerbated for me by my particularly acute sense of hearing - no doubt Mother Nature's way of compensating for my terrible eyesight. I once found myself driven to the edge by an incessant 'clicking', which I eventually realised was bubbles popping in a glass of Buck's Fizz - on a table three feet away from me.

I long ago adopted the habit of wearing ear plugs at home when doing work that requires concentration, to block out the noises that take me to the brink: I live on a busy street and car doors slamming is another of my auditory tortures.

Misophonia is new to me, but it's a condition I'll definitely be investigating further.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Helen. One of my daughters has always been very sensitive to sound (she does not have OCD). I am as well, but five years ago, I developed tinnitus (constant ringing in my ears) so I've had no choice but to adapt. I'd love to understand this subject more!

Helen Barbour said...

ocdtalk, I'm so sorry to hear that you have tinnitus. My partner does, too, so I know how distressing it can be - and, of course, it's made worse by stress, so you can end up in a vicious cycle of stress aggravating your tinnitus, and tinnitus then increasing your stress.