How to Cope With Tinnitus: My Experience
I have had tinnitus for over 25 years. For the first 20 or so years, it was the regular, garden variety “ringing in ears," but for the past four years I have also had a pulsing sound in my right ear.
As I wrote that first sentence an image came into my mind of a server in a fast food restaurant asking, “And would you like regular or large? How about a side order of pulsing along with the hissing, buzzing, and ringing in your ears?”
Now, if you feel miserable because you have tinnitus, you might think that it’s not a laughing matter, or that mine can’t be all that serious if I make bad jokes about it.
So let me say now that I don’t always laugh about it, and that I would love, love, love to hear silence again. I am not at all suggesting that you should just grin and bear it. I’d love to find a miracle cure just as much as anyone else would—but I’m not willing to make myself miserable while I wait, and nor need you.
Ringing in my Ears
I cannot tell you how the internal noises I hear compare to yours. I can tell you that a doctor recently put his stethoscope to my neck and told me my pulse there is very loud, which possibly explains the sound I hear. He also sent me for a MRI scan and told me that the results of an audiology test showed significant hearing loss at higher levels. What that means to me on a daily basis is that if the television, radio or washing machine is on I cannot make out what people say. It also means that I long ago gave up going to the loud concerts that possibly contributed to the tinnitus in the first place. I avoid noisy places because I don’t enjoy them and can’t hear conversations.
Too much loud noise can possibly cause tinnitus
Ways to Cope with Tinnitus
But tinnitus doesn’t depress me, doesn’t keep me awake at night, doesn’t make me bad-tempered – all things I’ve heard people say it does to them. (No, when I’m bad-tempered it’s got far more to do with what I’m thinking than anything else, and thankfully it happens considerably less often than it used to do.)
I’m not for one minute suggesting that I am better than anyone who does find tinnitus hard to deal with. I am not better than you or anyone else and I have had my moments of despair. My aim in writing this is to encourage you to see that life with tinnitus does not need to be a life of unhappiness.
Since two thousand times as many people search on Google for a miracle cure for tinnitus than search for how to cope with tinnitus, my message may not be what everyone wants to hear. But would your rather suffer with tinnitus, or enjoy life? While we may not have much choice in whether or not we have tinnitus, we do have a choice in how we deal with it, and I’d like to share with you some practices that help me. When I say practices I don’t mean that I consciously work at these on a regular basis – for me it’s much less formal than that, and more an integral part of life.
But if I find myself feeling miserable and wishing for silence then I do consciously focus on these.
Anatomy of the Ear
Information about Pulsatile Tinnitus
Pulsatile tinnitus, to give the pulsing in the ears its correct term, can in rare cases be an indication of a serious medical condition. In the vast majority of cases the cause is benign, but if you experience this do get it checked out by a specialist doctor. Around 3% of people with tinnitus experience pulsatile tinnitus, and like, me, many have it along with continuous tinnitus. It is the form of tinnitus most people find bothersome, and luckily it is also the form most likely to be cured.
Focused Breathing Can Help Feelings
Try this short exercise and see what happens. You can read it through first and then give it a go.
Focus on your breathing. Allow the breath to come and go naturally without trying to force change, and notice that as you do this it will naturally begin to slow down. Now focus on how you are breathing: shallow breathing into your chest, especially mouth breathing, creates stress in the body, which leads to anxiety and could make tinnitus worse.
Now close your mouth and consciously breathe more deeply, allowing your stomach to expand with each in-breath. At first you might find it easier to do this lying down, placing your hands on your stomach. If you spend about 10 minutes a day doing this it will help you feel calmer. It’s also a good idea to become more conscious of your breathing throughout the day and use it to help you stay calm. This technique also has the added bonus of taking your mind off the tinnitus.
Choose to reframe
I find it enormously helpful to remind myself that tinnitus is not dangerous, not life threatening and not even painful. It’s just a noise – or several noises. (But please read the note about Pulsatile Tinnitus in the blue box.) My father has been living with cancer for three years and has constant pain in his spine as a result. A friend of mine died of the same cancer last year and another friend of mine died of cancer three years ago, leaving behind two young children. Compared to that, tinnitus is a dot on the horizon in an ocean of suffering.
That’s one way I reframe the tinnitus, and another is to think back to a year ago when I told a friend about the pulsing sound (and yes I was looking for sympathy!) My friend said, “That would be reassuring, to hear your heartbeat.” He has raised cholesterol, and his father died of a heart attack in middle age, so I can see his point!
Yet another reframe I often do is to notice that some of the sounds I hear are similar to the sea. I love to be by the sea, so as I notice the sounds in my head, I imagine the sea. All of these practices mean that noises no longer seems unbearable and I don’t feel like a tinnitus sufferer or victim. That leaves me feeling much happier.
You will have your own stories like these, so use them to reframe for yourself.
Take each moment as it comes
In some ways this is similar to reframing. Notice the thoughts and beliefs you have about tinnitus, and in particular watch out for beliefs such as: “It’s unbearable," or “There isn’t any cure so I’m stuck with this forever.” Now notice the images that come with those thoughts. Are those images of you forever stuck feeling weighed down and unhappy because of tinnitus? And how do those images make you feel? Do they make you feel overwhelmed and maybe even depressed?
You are not alone. Since we constantly hear that there is no cure for tinnitus it’s not surprising that many people feel this way. Especially if tinnitus is new to you, it can seem frightening and overwhelming to read that there is no cure. What I find is that both believing there is no cure and hoping for a cure leave me feeling powerless, whereas when I simply focus on this moment, I feel calm.
Notice that what makes tinnitus feel unbearable is not what’s happening right now, but our thoughts about it. When instead we focus on this moment we can cope. Each moment is bearable because we are bearing it. It’s not necessary to have spent years learning meditation to focus on this moment. My suggestion is to observe your thoughts, notice when they are racing off into scary scenarios and then focus on the objects around you, or on whatever you happen to be doing - at what’s actually here right now.
If you struggle to sleep, focus on the feel of the bedclothes, of the pillow beneath your head, the colors in the darkness (you’ll be surprised!) Again this takes you back to what’s here right now, and that might include the sounds in your head. When you notice the sounds, as best you can, do it in the same way you notice the feel of the bedclothes - with neutrality.
If you have resistance to this suggestion, that’s absolutely normal, because if you have been focused on trying to change your situation it may seem at first that this is pointless. But it’s one way that works very effectively for me, so consider giving it a go.
Welcome your feelings and let go
If I find myself feeling frustrated with the endless noise, I do my best to welcome that frustration and any other feelings such as self-pity or hopelessness.
Welcoming does not mean wallowing. It means allowing the feelings to be there and allowing them to go. You don’t need to try to get rid of them; willingness is all it takes. This might seem alien at first, especially if you are used to pushing away feelings or have been trying to think positively about your situation. But when we welcome what we feel right now, it doesn’t mean we must try to “put up with it”, or that it will always be this way. We simply open and acknowledge that in this moment we feel frustrated (or whatever feeling we have), and that it’s okay to feel that way. This in itself is enough to ease our feelings.
By welcoming what we feel in this moment we open to change, because our energy is no longer being used to resist what is. That frees us to be open to solutions we might not have considered before.
One Possible Cure
While researching for this article I came across one such possible solution, . It seems that tinnitus may not be caused by irreparable damage to our cochlea after all, but because our hearing is over sensitive. Tinnitus Retraining Therapy
Our brains all have the ability to filter out noises, so that someone living next to a railway ceases to notice the sound of the trains, or a mother can sleep through a thunderstorm but wake with her baby’s whimper.
It seems that it is the meanings we give sounds that determine whether or not we go on hearing them and that the key to lessening the effects of tinnitus is in relearning to filter out the sounds we don’t need to hear. Although sound patterns are generated in our ears, it is in our brains that we become aware of sounds. Therefore it is with our brains that we can learn to let go of what tinnitus-retraining therapists refer to as the conditioned response, our reaction to sounds.
I am excited to have come across Tinnitus Retraining Therapy and I will be looking into it further and will write more on it in the future. Maybe it will be that soon all of us with tinnitus can all once again hear the sound of silence.
Read More about Tinnitus Retraining Therapy
- This website has extensive information on Tinnitus Retraining Therapy: Tinnitus and Hyperacusis Centre
- And this is a short introductory article from deafness research.org.uk: Simplified tinnitus retraining therapy reduces tinnitus distress
© 2012 Yvonne Spence