Have you ever noticed that when you’re in pain, you feel compelled to keep messing with your injury to see how much it hurts?
For some reason, we tend to focus on pain with an intensity rarely seen elsewhere in our lives. And it’s not just physical pain. We do this with health problems, like tinnitus, too.
In fact, one of the most frustrating aspects of living with tinnitus is the strange, exhausting impulse to constantly measure the sound.
Sometimes, it’s a compulsion to check and see if your tinnitus is louder now than it was before. Other times, it’s an obsession – no matter what you do, you just can’t stop thinking about the sound. The rest of the time, however, it manifests as horrible and intrusive negative thoughts in the form of rumination.
When it happens, our natural instinct is usually to just try and ignore the sound, so we can go back to whatever it was we were doing. But we rarely ever win that battle.
In fact, I believe it’s the wrong approach entirely. It’s almost impossible to think our way out of this kind of intensely negative emotional experience. We’re not thinking rationally in these moments. We just react emotionally, automatically, without thinking at all.
But you always have the power to break these negative thought patterns and take back control in these difficult moments.
It just takes a little bit of work.
1) Stop researching tinnitus on the internet:
Obviously, I understand the irony of this advice – you’re researching tinnitus right now. But it’s important to consider, because there’s a very good chance that Googling tinnitus is making your tinnitus worse.
You see, most people aren’t tortured by tinnitus at first. In those early days, there’s still hope. You don’t understand what’s happening to you, and while it’s scary, most people can handle it when they think it’s a temporary problem. The fear begins when it doesn’t go away.
Let me be very clear: the vicious cycle of tinnitus always starts with fear, and almost nothing will amplify your fear faster than Googling tinnitus.
Because you’ll likely find case after case of the worst suffering imaginable. Your worst fears will be confirmed, panic sets in, and the vicious cycle of suffering begins.
There is always hope, and the very real possibility of relief – you just may not find it right away. So pick a treatment strategy, commit to the process, and stop researching tinnitus.
2) Understand the problem – it’s not the sound
There may not be a cure for tinnitus, but you can get to a place where it stops bothering you. Your brain is fully capable of tuning it out like it does all other meaningless background noise with a mental process called habituation.
But there’s a problem: when it’s bothersome, your brain is interpreting the sound of your tinnitus as something dangerous. And it’s impossible to ignore a dangerous sound. (You would never want to not hear the sound of something actually dangerous)
Our brains simply can’t tell the difference between real danger and an imagined threat like tinnitus. Our fear makes the danger real, whether it’s real or not, so the reaction is the same. We have a stress response that doesn’t end because the tinnitus doesn’t go away.
It just gets worse, because we start to associate the fear, frustration, anguish, depression and anxiety with the sound itself.
But you can change the way you react to the sound emotionally. And when you do, your brain will start to tune it out automatically, more and more of the time.
Whether you are trying to habituate or break negative thought patterns in a difficult moment, you need to understand that this is an emotional and psychological problem. And ignoring these kinds of problems generally makes them worse.
3) You can’t think your way out of an emotional experience – but you can act your way out
When it’s bothering you, don’t just fight to ignore the sound. It’s a losing battle. Most of the time, you won’t be able to think your way out of this kind of intensely negative emotional experience. But you can act your way out by changing the situation.
Anytime you experience any of the following:
- A spike, fluctuation, or change in volume, pitch, or sound
- A moment where it’s more bothersome than usual
- Obsessively noticing, measuring or focusing on your tinnitus
Try the following technique (I call this the Tinnitus Reaction Technique):
- Stop what you’re doing and sit down.
- Think about the hours leading up to this moment, recognize that it wasn’t bothering you as much until right now. Become aware of how long of a good period you had leading up to this moment.
- Close your eyes, feel your body go limp as you relax your muscles, focus on the tinnitus and take several deep breaths.
- Remind yourself that you were okay before this moment and that you will be okay again – your tinnitus will calm back down.
- Choose a coping strategy or coping tool and use it immediately. Remember, the goal is to break the rumination and negative thought patterns by doing something else entirely. Coping techniques include anything that masks the sound, relaxes you mentally or physically, or distracts you from the sound.
You just need to do something else long enough for your nervous system to calm down a bit. The spike will pass eventually, they always do.
This technique won’t necessarily reduce the volume of your tinnitus, but it can help you to cope far more effectively in a moment of suffering. It will take practice, but over time, this technique becomes more and more powerful.
Plus, if you’re actively working to habituate, distractions, masking, and relaxation techniques become more than simple coping tools. Because the more relaxed you are, more of the time, the faster you will be able to stop reacting to the sound emotionally.
4) Preventative coping
For some reason, when people are bothered by tinnitus, they often find it difficult to get up and actually use the tools that help them better cope.
For example, sound masking is a simple way to cope with difficult tinnitus moments. Just put on some background noise. Easy, right? Well maybe not, because you won’t always think to do it right away.
Remember, this is an emotional problem. If you’re having obsessive thoughts, can’t stop focusing on the sound, or even if you’re just having a difficult moment, you’re caught up in an intensely negative emotional experience. You’re reacting to the sound automatically and acting out the behavioral patterns of the vicious cycle on auto pilot.
Becoming aware that it’s happening, and mindful enough to actually make a conscious decision to do something about it, is a much bigger challenge than most people realize. But you can make it a lot easier with a simple strategy I call preventative coping.
All you have to do is practice using the coping tools that help you deal with tinnitus, every day, even when your tinnitus isn’t bothering you. The repetition makes it far more likely that you’ll remember to actually use the tools and techniques that help you when you need them most.
Just to give you an idea, here are some of the helpful coping tools I recommend practicing on a regular basis:
- Sound masking / Music
- Relaxation Audio (from my Tinnitus Relief Audio Program)
- Tinnitus Focused Meditation (the basis of my habituation strategy)
- Relaxing activities and fun hobbies
- Spending time with friends and family
- Breathing techniques (especially the Quick Coherence Breathing technique)
- The Tinnitus Reaction Technique (See Step 4)
- Physically relaxing activities (hot baths, saunas, self-massage, etc.)
5) Use helpful routines to prevent morning rumination:
Mornings are often a difficult time for tinnitus sufferers. When you wake up and the first thing you hear is the sound, negative thoughts can quickly bubble up to the surface.
It’s also hard to sleep with tinnitus. You may be waking up early in the morning – earlier than you wanted to wake up. A lot people end up tossing and turning in bed, thinking negative thoughts and ruminating over the sound.
The easiest way to deal with this is to plan out the first 20 minutes of your morning routine. When you wake up (even if it’s early) get out of bed right away and put on some music, background noise, or better yet, an inspirational podcast or entertaining radio show. And once you’re up, start your morning routine immediately. Don’t even give your brain the chance to start ruminating or thinking negative thoughts.
This technique won’t prevent rumination later in the day, but it will help you start the day off on the right foot. The less you ruminate throughout the day, the better off you’ll be.
The compulsion to constantly focus on the sound is a frustratingly difficult challenge for many tinnitus sufferers. Even if you’ve started to habituate, the smallest fluctuation or spike can often bring you right back to the sound.
At times, the obsessive thinking and rumination can be worse than the tinnitus itself.
But it doesn’t have to be this way, at least not forever. You can build resilience by learning to stop these negative thought patterns in their tracks. And as a result, you can improve your quality of life and accelerate the process of habituation.
Until there’s a cure for tinnitus, that’s what matters most.