Team areas in the workplace aren’t going away any time soon. They’re great for collaboration, and they’re a lot more cost-effective than providing every employee with a private office. But they do have their drawbacks. Cube-dwellers tell stories of cringing in embarrassment while a coworker gets dumped via a phone call, or pretending not to overhear all of those calls from creditors. But what if the downsides of sharing such close quarters went beyond mere annoyance? What if any sound associated with eating - crunching, swallowing, slurping, even simple chewing - sent you into either a panic or a rage? It’s called misophonia, and it can make working in a team area torture.
Misophonia means "hatred of sounds". For most people, it revolves around eating noises, but some people have the same reaction to pens clicking, knuckles cracking, etc. Others are triggered by sight; seeing someone chew gum bothers them as much as hearing it. Although misophonia used to be considered a psychological disorder, it's now known to be a neurological disorder. In other words, misophonia is caused by physiological abnormalities in the brain. While people with misophonia have a normal auditory system, it's abnormally linked to their limbic system, the part of the brain that regulates emotion. So certain sounds - like popping gum - actually trigger the primitive fight-or-flight reflex. People feel compelled to do whatever it takes to escape the sound or to make it stop, and the feelings of rage and panic can be overwhelming.
Misophonia may have had some sort of evolutionary benefit - like the way many women have a strong emotional reaction to a crying baby - but that's little comfort to the people who have the disorder. There's no real "fix," either; some doctors recommend cognitive behavior therapy to gradually desensitize their patients, but other studies suggest that could actually make things worse. But there are some practical helps. If you’re driven to distraction by the noises inherent in any team environment, try some of these coping mechanisms:
- Strategically time your breaks: If you’re about to come unglued because your neighbor is crunching a bag of chips, just leave the area for a few minutes. Grab a cup of coffee, go to the bathroom, or run that invoice over to the folks in accounting. Work at your desk when things are quiet, and save your away-from-your-desk work for those times when you need to escape.
- Listen to music: A simple solution is to drown the sounds out by using your ear buds to listen to music. You may not want to wear them all the time, because that could cause you to miss out on one of the main benefits of working in a team area: shared information. But it’s a good idea to have them on hand for those times when you just can’t take it anymore.
- Play white noise: If listening to music is too distracting, try white noise. There are white noise apps to choose from, and some also produce other “colors” of noise. White noise is typically considered the best for canceling out background noises, but you can experiment to find the one that works best for you.
- Wear noise-canceling headphones: Noise-canceling headphones don’t just cover your ears; they emit frequencies that cancel out background noise. Tinnitus sufferers wear them, as do people who have trouble sleeping on airplanes due to all of the ambient noise. No headphones block all noise, but that’s actually a good thing in a work environment: you need to know when someone is trying to get your attention.
Misophonia can make working in a team area almost unbearable; there may be lots of times when it takes all of your energy not to throw your hands over your ears and run from the room. Instead, be proactive and see if these techniques make your workday a little more pleasant.
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