The pandemic has us all home. Other than walking our puppy, our family is living, working, learning, breathing, eating, talking, moving about, at home, all day, all the time. Home confinement, intended to ensure our physical health, is testing the emotional resilience of all families, but especially those with elders, teens, those with misophonia, and atypical social and emotional intensities.
As introverts with a myriad of sensory sensitivities, we welcome cocooning; however, having no other escape from all the sounds, sights, smells, emotions, and the physical and energetic presence of all five of us twenty-four seven, even the most emotionally regulated among us is being challenged. The cacophony of sensory stimuli sets the stage for disturbing eruptions. To top it all off, there are incessant dishes with which we must contend.
Normally, I merely bristle at my husband unloading the dishwasher, then feel guilty for doing so—after all, he is unloading it, and we have a dishwasher, for which I am grateful. This day, the visceral discomfort that courses through my whole body as glasses and plates crash, clank, and grind against one another feels excruciating. Rather than discharge my instantaneous wrath and self-righteous indignation at his audacity to unload the dishwasher in my presence, I first try to ride the wave by breathing through the repeated assaults. “Abandon ship!” my inner protectors demand of me. I sigh audibly and urgently evacuate. Perplexed by the intensity of my over-sensitivity/reactivity this particular day, my husband merely grimaces. I know he too has been thrown off kilter by living in closer quarters; he tries so hard to accommodate the idiosyncratic needs of our gifted family’s processing differences.
At least three of us experience life via a combination of sensory and emotional superstimulabilities (among others). Kasimierz Dabrowski, a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist, chose the Polish version of the term translated as overexcitabilities in English, to describe five inborn intensities that result in heightened experiences of, and responses to, stimuli that far exceed what one would typically expect and that are understood as being universal characteristics of gifted children and adults.1 We celebrate our keen visual aesthetic, culinary explorations and discerning palate for social drama. We also honor that our home hums when there are no chewing sounds, no cheese smells, no fingers touching paper or clocks ticking loudly, no whispering, waving or repetitive gesticulating, no holding of my husband’s fork, tines down, in memory of his late father, because someone in the family has an extreme sensitivity and intense reaction to at least one of these. Our life together is intensely quiet, until it’s not.
Intermittently, and now more frequently during this pandemic, we have misophonia moments when some intense sensory experience triggers a highly distressing emotional outburst. Pawel and Margaret Jastreboff, introduced the term misophonia in 2001, to describe auditorily triggered autonomic system-emotional over-reactivity. Interest in misophonia has exploded among public, clinical, and academic communities in the last decade. Misophonia is currently viewed by many as a complex sensory-neurophysiological condition with psychosocial, cognitive, and emotion processing and regulation components due, in part, to neurological interconnectivity. Some believe it is a conditioned reflex.
Nascent research suggests that misophonia impacts between 13-20 percent of the general population. Prevalence increases (up to about 50 percent) among those with coexisting conditions such as anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorders, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), autism spectrum, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and giftedness. Being stressed, tense, trapped, or unable to escape the cue, known as a trigger, contributes to the development of new reactivity to misophonic triggers, as well as to the intensifying of reactions to existing misophonic cues. Just as with giftedness, there seems to be a genetic component since misophonia runs in families, yet no two misophonics experience the exact same triggers or responses, which adds to family confusion.
Notwithstanding that this phenomenon may not be new news to gifted and/or homeschooling families, and that we may be capturing similar dynamics with different terminology, it is clear that we are having to cope with intense stressors of confined family life on top of major disappointments, losses, and uncertainties that can further threaten already taxed attentional and regulatory systems. It’s bewildering and further dysregulating to feel fine one minute and explosive the next, especially if a person identifies themself as kind and caring, possessing a strong moral compass, and being committed to justice. To resolve this dissonance, guilt and shame come to the rescue. Anxiety and self-doubt about their capacity to self-regulate may step in to protect themself from themself, and to protect others from them, often in the form of avoidance of people and associated cues. Misophonics are left feeling even more alone and ashamed, misunderstood, even, and especially now, when in the company of loved ones.
A few days into quarantine, my son’s reactivity to the smell of cheese extended to irritation at seeing others of us select cheese for lunch. Insidiously, it generalized to fear about us all leaving behind cheese residue, concerns we were not washing adequately, and assumptions of increased risk for contracting the virus. By month three of quarantine, while speculating about safe college reopening, our family volcano erupted, releasing the built-up pressure.
After the volcanic ash settled, each person articulated and attentively listened to the many points of distress. We then collaboratively agreed upon mutually respectful environmental and behavioral adjustments to achieve quiescence. Lunch times and content became independent, with random overlaps. My son increased the frequency of his yoga practice and began running on the treadmill, which reinstated his body ownership and reset his baseline physiological equilibrium. My daughter started jogging in the neighborhood and came up with a challenging creative writing project to affirm her freedom. My husband has been walking the puppy (he did not want us to get) nightly to ease his transition from work to family mode. Repair initiated: catastrophic devastation averted.
I am recognizing that for me to bring my gifts to the world—by being the best mom/wife/therapist/person I believe I am meant to be—I, too, must reframe as prescriptions, rather than luxuries, activities that soothe and recalibrate my dysregulated system. Some gifts of Covid-19 have been the reinstatement of my morning meditation practice and sacred silence (even if I need to judiciously use the “dangerous” earplugs), increasing green (trees) and blue (water) exposure, and negotiating time alone to sublimate my irascibilities into creative endeavors.
Mandated family time can exacerbate both the up and downsides of overexcitabilities. Sometimes it takes seismic activity to remind us we are treading on fragile and sacred grounds. My family’s neurodiversity has called me to practice and encourage greater compassion, agency, loving connection, and self-care in each moment. Most recently, I find myself mindfully and joyfully emptying the dishwasher, embracing the gift of my teenagers’ enhanced presence. Before I know it, our home will be too quiet, too still, too lonely, and there will be too few dishes to justify running the dishwasher.
- James T. Webb, Edward R. Amends, Paul Beljan, Nadia E. Webb, Marianne Kuzujanakis, F. Richard Olenchak, & Jean Goerss, Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children and Adults. Adhd, Bipolar, OCD, Asperger’s, Depression, and other Disorders (2nd edition) (Great Potential Press, Inc., 2016).
- Susan Daniels & Michael M. Piechowski (eds.), Living with Intensity (Great Potential Press, 2008).
Brout, Jennifer J. “Stuck at Home with Misophonia? Some Tips for Coping!” Psychology Today, April 16, 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/noises/202004/stuck-home-misophonia.
Gere, D.R., S.C. Capps, D.W. Mitchell, and E. Grubbs. “Sensory Sensitivities of Gifted Children.” American Occupational Therapy 63, no. 3 (May/June 2009): 296-300. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.63.3.288