There’s a reason that loud, repetitive sound is used to torture people: it works, and not just a little bit, it can completely break a person down.
But the “sound as torture” concept isn’t limited to interrogation tactics.
Unfortunately, it hits home with a much larger demographic: tinnitus sufferers.
Tinnitus, the medical term for ringing in the ears, is a significant public health problem affecting 10-15% of the population. For the hundreds of millions of sufferers around the world, the sounds never stop, and conventional treatments rarely work the way we want them to.
But in the war against tinnitus, few people have been let down harder than those with hearing loss.
Even if you still have your hearing, tinnitus can ruin your quality of life. But for the people with hearing loss, it can be utterly devastating.
Yet despite the massive challenges, relief is still possible.
If you suffer from hearing loss and tinnitus, there’s a better way forward.
A Unique Set of Challenges:
When tinnitus is bothersome, most people’s first instinct is to try to drown it out with background noise. It’s a commonly prescribed treatment as well.
And it works. In the short-term it can help you cope, but that’s only if you can actually hear it.
If you live with hearing loss, you’re forced to hear the horrible noise at all times, with no way to block it out. It’s a terrifying reality faced by millions of people around the world.
But it’s important to understand that you don’t just have to suffer. You still have options.
Step one is understanding exactly what is within your control and what isn’t.
For better or worse, you can’t change the sound in any meaningful way, especially when it’s bothering you. But you can change the way you react to it.
It’s not easy, because the reaction happens automatically. But it’s possible, and it’s also where you have the most leverage.
When you change your reaction to the sound, it will stop bothering you and dramatically improve your quality of life.
The Underlying Problem:
The real issue with tinnitus is how we react to the sound emotionally, physically, and psychologically.
When it’s bothering us, we can’t tune it out or ignore it because it’s simply impossible to ignore a sound that our brain interprets as something dangerous or threatening.
We use sound to monitor our environment for threats and we’re evolutionarily hardwired to react to sounds that imply danger in a very specific way.
Unfortunately, our brains can’t tell the difference between a perceived threat like tinnitus (or public speaking to give you another common example) and real danger, so our reaction is the same.
We have a stress response, but it never ends because our tinnitus doesn’t just go away, fueling a vicious cycle of pain, frustration, and emotional suffering.
The good news is we can change the way we react to the noise, and when we do, we can start to tune it out naturally.
When it’s not bothering us, the human brain is fully capable of ignoring the sounds of tinnitus with a mental process called habituation.
It’s the same mental process that enables us to focus on a single task in noisy or busy places.
And until there’s a cure for tinnitus, it’s our only hope for relief.
An Unwanted, Automatic Reaction:
When it’s bothering you, your reaction to tinnitus is a lot like hearing nails on a chalk board. It sends a shockwave of stress through your body known as the fight-or-flight response.
This panicky, anxiety driven state can feel miserable, but it serves a purpose: it primes the body to react to danger. For a brief window, you can run faster and hit harder, your vision sharpens and your hearing becomes more acute.
Under normal circumstances, when the danger is resolved, your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to calm you down again.
But tinnitus makes it difficult for that to happen. And the harder you try to ignore it, the harder your brain will fight to redirect your attention to the source of the perceived threat.
In other words, ignoring the sound isn’t an option.
And it gets worse, because we start to associate our stress and feelings of frustration with the sound, turning our already negative reaction into an automatic conditioned response.
Instead, the goal is to turn your tinnitus into something useful, something that can change the way your brain interprets the sound.
Step two is taking back control.
My tinnitus is caused by a rare, incurable inner ear disorder called Meniere’s disease. It’s a debilitating condition, and even though I was able to improve my symptoms, my tinnitus only worsened over time.
But several years ago, I stumbled on to a simple technique that radically changed the way I react to the sound.
After my diagnosis, I used meditation to help me manage the unbelievable amount of stress and anxiety I was experiencing at the time. It helped, but it was increasingly difficult to focus on my breathing with the sound of sirens blasting in my ears.
Yet one night, struggling to meditate, I suddenly had an idea. If meditation involved focusing my attention onto a single point of awareness, like my breathing, what would happen if I focused on my tinnitus instead?
It was a scary idea, but I tried it, and it changed everything.
The first thing I noticed was when my mind drifted during tinnitus focused meditation (this happens to all meditators – meditation is the practice of catching yourself and starting again), it drifted away from the sound. For those brief moments of time, my tinnitus didn’t bother me at all.
But most surprising of all, when I finished, it seemed quieter. It wasn’t actually quieter, it just wasn’t bothering me as much, so it didn’t seem as loud.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but my brain was starting to associate the calm relaxation of meditation with the sound of my tinnitus.
Over the following few weeks, I improved dramatically.
It was still very loud and still bothered me occasionally, but would I suddenly realize that I hadn’t noticed it for hours, or days.
The Basic Tinnitus Meditation Technique:
What started as a lucky accident slowly evolved into a comprehensive system for finding relief.
But through it all, the basic technique remained, and I have copied it here for you to try, from my new book Rewiring Tinnitus: How I Finally Found Relief From the Ringing in My Ears:
(If you’re just starting out, practice this technique for only 5-10 minutes.)
Close your eyes and take five deep breaths into your diaphragm (lower abdomen). Feel your stomach expand as you inhale, and with each exhale, feel your entire body become more and more relaxed, letting all of your muscles go completely limp like a ragdoll.
Next, focus on relaxing individual muscle groups, one at a time, relaxing each as much as possible before moving on. Let all of the tension go as you work your way through your body.
Start by focusing on your feet and your toes. Allow the muscles to go completely limp. Now focus on your legs and your butt, releasing all the tension. Continue on to your stomach and your lower back, then your chest and upper back, your shoulders and your arms, your hands and your fingers, your neck and your throat, and finally, your head and your face.
Once you’ve worked your way through your body, and your muscles are completely relaxed, take another five deep breaths into your diaphragm.
Once your body is completely relaxed, it’s time to focus your attention on the sound of your tinnitus. Try to maintain a mindset of curiosity, as if you were observing something interesting for the first time. Continue to breathe naturally and keep your mind focused on the sound. When your mind starts to wander, and you notice it happening, gently bring your focus back to the sound.
Tinnitus Meditation and Hearing Loss:
If you’re skeptical at this point, I don’t blame you.
And I know that focusing on the sound that’s driving you crazy inherently feels like a bad idea.
Normally, at this point I would suggest using background noise to partially mask the sound as you practice tinnitus meditation to make it easier.
But obviously, that won’t work if you have hearing loss. Fortunately, you can engage your other senses to enhance your tinnitus meditation practice.
In Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP), there is a concept known as anchoring. The basic premise is simple: through repetition, you can condition your body to react in a specific way to triggers of your choosing.
In the same way that you can train your brain to associate the relaxation of meditation with the sound of your tinnitus, you can connect a state of relaxation with sights, smells, and body postures.
Eventually, you can learn to trigger a relaxation response on demand. But you probably already have sights and smells that you associate with relaxation, and incorporating them into tinnitus meditation can make a big difference.
Candles, incense, images, specific locations, and memories that you associate with relaxation can all be utilized to make tinnitus meditation more approachable.
Ruthless Lifestyle Management:
The last piece of the puzzle is lifestyle management, and it all boils down to a simple truth: your lifestyle, environment, and diet all play a role in the severity of your tinnitus.
You can’t control what causes your tinnitus to spike, but you can figure out what those variables are, and take steps to mitigate them when possible.
The problem is we’re just not very good at connecting how we feel with our environment and lifestyle. But when we have the right information in front of us, it’s much easier to find the patterns.
So I created a free tool to help you find your triggers.
It’s called the Rewiring Tinnitus Trigger Tool and it’s designed to help you track all the right information to identify exactly what is exacerbating your tinnitus.
When tinnitus is caused by hearing loss, hearing aids can help quite a bit.
A common theory of tinnitus states that when the brain experiences a reduction in information it’s getting from the ears, it makes up the for the difference by turning up the volume of other internal noises.
In this context, restoring some, if not all, of your hearing with a hearing aid can make a huge difference in the volume of your tinnitus.
If you haven’t already done so, I recommend going to an audiologist. They can quickly check your hearing with a simple test called an audiogram, and fit you for hearing aids if possible.
It won’t work for everyone and hearing aids can get expensive, but if you can afford it, it’s worth a shot.
Hearing loss and tinnitus are each challenging on their own. Together, they can push you to your limits. Far too many people are told they just have to live with it.
But there is a better way forward for the millions of people who hear tinnitus and little else.
And there is hope for today, because we can habituate.
It may not be easy, but it’s possible, and with the right approach, relief is just around the corner.