The mantra teacher in my trauma-informed yoga training was a skilled performer and a kindhearted schoolteacher. So why was I so irritable?

Let me explain. For the other sections of the 200 hour course – asana, philosophy, pranayama, etc. – I was a keen and eager student. But moments into the repeating patterns of mantra and high-pitched instrumentations of the Yoga of Sound module, an established (and not so welcome) reaction arose: Extreme agitation and resistance.

My aversion to sounds is long-standing and such a part of me, that I have adapted my life to accommodate it. 

At home, I rarely listen to music or radio. When I do, it’s limited to CBC and classical music. I ask friends who chew too loudly (by my evaluation) or tap tables to cease and desist! And my poor husband, an avid jazz musician who cannot fully understand that all I hear is “noise”, stoically attends concerts with like-minded friends and leaves me (happily) at home. Since annoying “earworms” can literally stay with me for days, we also have a house policy of “no singing/humming ditties” within my earshot. 

Misophonia is an aversion to sounds

I’ve always been aware that I am a bit unusual when it comes to sounds, but only recently discovered a name for it: misophonia. 

Researchers first published the term misophonia only in 2001. Other names are sound aversion, hyperacusis, selective sound sensitivity, or auditory hypersensitivity.

Misophonia typically presents as an immediate, very unpleasant response to specific pattern-based sounds regardless of loudness.

Leading experts say misophonia is best described as “a neurophysiological disorder related to atypical connections between auditory pathways in the brain and the pathways in which emotions are processed, particularly fight/flight. Common triggers of misophonia include:

  • chewing
  • throat clearing
  • slurping
  • finger tapping
  • foot shuffling
  • keyboard tapping
  • pen clicking 

Beyond everyday sounds, sound aversion can also occur with certain types of music, rhythms, or with auditory sensory overload (too many sounds coming in at once)

Responses to Misophonia

People with misophonia can have responses that range from mild to severe – from needing  to leave a social setting to a full-blown panic attack. They may also experience loneliness and isolation because of their efforts to avoid triggers.

Some common symptoms are:

  • Anxiety
  • Deep discomfort
  • An urge to escape
  • Disgust
  • Anger
  • Irritability

More severe reactions could include: 

  • Hatred
  • Rage
  • Fear
  • Distress
  • Panic
  • Emotional overwhelm

Even anticipation of a trigger may cause an adverse reaction. For example, a misophonic person may decline invitations to avoid being triggered. People with severe misophonia may avoid social situations.

A major challenge for those with misophonia is the public’s lack of awareness about the condition. While people who disclose having depression or anxiety are increasingly met with at least a general understanding from colleagues or acquaintances, people with misophonia may need to define or defend the term. This can make it difficult for the person suffering to feel seen and understood.

It’s important to understand that misophonia can be quite inconsistent: not all triggers produce the same reaction on any given day; not all sounds are perceived negatively.  

Emerging theories about Misophonia

  • Researchers haven’t determined a single cause. 
  • Most likely related to atypical connectivity between auditory brain areas and the parts of the brain that process emotion (often referred to as the limbic system)
  • The amygdala is likely involved as it mediates autonomic (involuntary) nervous system arousal and fight/flight responses. 
  • Other brain areas that might be involved include the insula (which alerts us to danger) and parts of the medial frontal lobe (involved in emotion processing) 
  • Recent work has also found that people with misophonia report increased awareness of internal sensations, suggesting that interoception may play a role in the misophonic response.
  • Trauma is known to reduce distress tolerance and cause greater activation and dysregulation in the autonomic nervous system (ANS). If emotional regulation and ANS health are compromised by trauma, there is a tendency toward developing misophonia. Essentially, sounds are perceived as dangerous. 

Tips on Music and Sound for Trauma Informed Yoga Teachers

Does this mean no music or meditation bells ever? 

Probably not. However, it does mean that teachers who focus on inclusivity need to recognize that people react to music and other sounds differently. 

Some ideas (not rules!) to consider: 

  • Provide music only as people arrive and turn it off as the class begins. 
  • Ask the class if they prefer quiet or music during asana and meditation. 
  • Play music at a low volume.
  • Select ambient styles of music which are less likely to trigger irritation.
  • Ring bells or bowls very gently, with awareness that more intense sounds may cause a startle reflex.
  • If you decide to include a mantra, know that some people may be unsettled by extended repetitions.
  • People with misophonia may prefer instruction delivered in soft tones at a low volume. 

 

This guest post is by Kaye Simard, a recent graduate of the Yoga Outreach Certification™ program.