One of my biggest enemies has always been the sound of people chewing. Growing up, I’d sit at the family dinner table, unable to keep up with the conversation happening because I was so fixated on the sound of my dad downing his salad and my mom slurping her pea soup. Granted, the sound of my dad wolfing down his meal as if the world was seconds away from combusting could make anyone cringe. That said, even the sound of my mother’s gentle sipping has and continues to cause a visceral reaction bubbling from deep within my soul. I’d become angry and frustrated. I’d get shivers through my body. Sometimes I’d even cry.
This reaction was not limited to sounds at the dinner table. Throughout my school years, I kept a mental roster of “gum chompers.” Gum chompers were the cause of my absolute downfall, the ruiners of my days, my nemeses. As their title suggests, gum chompers were people who, without fail, chewed gum obnoxiously in class. They were loud and proud, with no remorse or recognition of the crime they were committing. I couldn’t focus on schoolwork if a chomper was around — I’d be too fixated on the fact that I wanted to clock them in the nose and throw them out of the window without an ounce of remorse. As dramatic as it sounds, this was my true reaction, without exaggeration. Some of my worst test scores can be attributed to my desk’s unfortunate placement next to someone chewing too loudly.
My closest friends know about my “issue” and are cautious about what and how they eat around me. A certain glance in their direction is all it takes for them to know that I’ve been triggered and that they have to lower the volume stat. But with most people, I suffer in silence, as I don’t feel comfortable letting them know about my condition. While I’d often like to tap people on the shoulder and offer them a polite, “Hey, the way your chewing is making me want to dig spoons through my ears and then rip all of my hair from my head and then cry — could you please close your mouth?”, I sit silently through the torture. There isn’t a good way to tell someone that their behavior is making you indescribably uncomfortable. This sentiment extends even further since chewing is a natural part of life (although there is a way to do it quietly). It’s not their fault, I usually try to tell myself, though to little avail.
I recently discovered that there’s a term for my intense aversion to chewing. Misophonia is “a disorder in which certain sounds trigger emotional or physiological responses that some might perceive as unreasonable given the circumstance.” The most common stimulus trigger for misophonia is the sound of others chewing. It turns out that studies have been done on misophonia, and knowledge surrounding the disorder is slowly growing. The word “slowly” is due to a lack of candidates to study; most sufferers are too embarrassed to bring up the topic in a clinical setting, me being one of them.
Nonetheless, my research uncovered that sources like the Harvard Health blog described and analyzed exactly what I felt — “a fight-or-flight response that triggers anger and a desire to escape.” This particular Harvard team used fMRIs to measure brain activity and discovered that for misophonia patients, the AIC (anterior insular cortex) caused significantly more activity in other parts of the brain in response to specific sounds. MRI scans also found that those with misophonia had higher amounts of myelin, a fatty substance that wraps around nerve cells in the brain to provide electrical insulation. It’s unknown if the extra myelin is a cause or effect of misophonia. Regardless, the mere existence of this concrete, scientific explanation was amazing and thrilling to me. That the inexplicable condition I’d always considered as my own freak personality trait was a classified psychiatric disorder granted me overwhelming amounts of validation.
Perhaps more validating than finding the facts, though, was finding other people who also have misophonia and understand my suffering. LSA sophomore Amanda Mackey described exactly what I’m sometimes unable to articulate.
“When I hear someone chewing, my toes literally start to curl and my mind goes numb because it’s the only thing I can hear in a room. That sloshing around noise drives me crazy, but I feel bad telling someone to close their mouth.”
Finding people who relate, like Mackey, is particularly exciting because most people don’t take my reaction seriously even when I muster the confidence to explain my misophonia. People have chomped louder in a humorous, ironic manner to see how I’d react. They’ve told me to “tune it out” or to “focus on something else.” I wish they’d understand that those were not options on the table. Yet I also understand that it’s tough to be compassionate or accommodating towards someone’s fear or extreme pet peeve when you cannot relate — when it’s not an extreme pet peeve to you. I think this is an interesting notion: the idea that the way one person perceives something may be beyond the comprehension of somebody else. This concept stretches far beyond misophonia. People have visceral reactions to countless auditory, visual or tactile stimuli that I’d never even considered until now.
LSA sophomore Lilly Rosenberg says she’s freaked out by uneven holes.
“It’s called trypophobia, actually. I’ll scroll through Instagram or Tik Tok and see a picture of a lotus flower or the underside of pancakes and immediately begin sweating and feeling like I’m gonna throw up. Like my whole body jerks. It’s entirely a visceral reaction.” Rosenberg squirmed in her seat as we talked.
“It sounds so stupid as I’m saying it out loud,” she laughed. “People think I’m stupid when I tell them about it, but it’s so real. Like I’m starting to sweat right now — we need to stop.” We laughed, but I knew that under Lilly’s laughter was a sheer discomfort that was so fascinatingly vacant from my own reaction.
LSA sophomore Rushabh Shah has a visceral reaction to the sound of metallic objects scratching against other metallic surfaces.
“It’s like when you try to insert a pen drive into a USB port on a laptop and miss, and it makes that screeching noise. Whenever something like that happens, I get these insane goosebumps and my hair stands on end.”
Shah vented about how often he hears this sound since almost anything scratching against people’s laptops creates the sensation.
“I make sure I don’t scratch any of the surrounding areas of my charging port. I put it perfectly into the slot,” he said, laughing self consciously. “But often people will throw, like, a pen into their backpack and it’ll scratch against the computer. This sounds so weird and dramatic, I know.”
Everyone I spoke to dismissed their hang-ups as weird, personal problems while also expressing just how much it irked them from deep within. I was intrigued, maybe even puzzled, by the breadth and depth of phenomena that could send a shiver down someone else’s spine or make them want to throw up yet could leave me completely unphased.
In an attempt to collect anecdotal research, I posted a story to my Instagram asking what specific stimuli other people have visceral reactions towards. People cracking their toes and fingers, 3D pictures that change images when you move them, turtlenecks, socks, or winter clothes that hug too tight. People were made anxious by ticking clocks, utterly disturbed by sitting on crumbs, and freaked out and angered by touching sticky substances like syrup. “I dropped out of my tap dance classes because I actually couldn’t stand the sound of the tapping,” one follower wrote. The list went on and on. I couldn’t relate to any of them, and naturally, I found a lot of them humorous — but that was the point. The sensation was the opposite of humorous to the individual who reported it.
There are so many pet peeves out there that border on legitimate fears. Everyone has their individual versions of misophonia that, perhaps while less prevalent in daily life, are wholly valid regardless of the fact that most others don’t understand them. We don’t regularly verbalize these reactions, assuming they’re unnatural since not everyone experiences them. How cool, though, that while we are all human, we’re all biologically and psychologically wired differently enough that we perceive and react to certain stimuli in such different ways.
I’m not trying to conjure a philosophical breakthrough out of the fact that I hate chewing, Rosenberg freaks out at holes and Shah winces when he charges his computer. I do think it’s important to notice, though, that many people have things that make them want to smash their head through the table or flee the room crying. It seems ridiculous, but we all go through and experience life in different ways. As humans, we just don’t have the capacity to fully understand where others may be coming from in regards to their perceptions and emotions due to the scientific fact that our physiology is different. But I think if we made a point to simply be aware of our lack of awareness, perhaps we’d all be a little more compassionate towards one another.
While I’ve picked up small techniques for coping with misophonia over the years, I’ll always have it. Noise-canceling Airpods have become my best friend, and I know that when I chew on something myself, it’s harder to hear the sound of others. I’m now able to sit in a college classroom without my eyes filling with liquid or at the sorority house dinner table without feeling like my head’s about to go up in flames. But it’s still there, it’s still the enemy, and my mental roster of gum chompers naturally continues — the same way I’m sure Rosenberg will forever fear holes, and Shah will always wince at the USB entering his computer.
It sounds silly, but that’s the point. It’s not silly to us. So while no cure exists for these conditions, a little accommodation and empathy — extending validity to those feelings that don’t seem valid to ourselves — can go a long way in easing the pain. Let’s live and let live. Unless, of course, you’re chomping on gum.