Tinnitus Habituation: Why Spikes and Setbacks are Part of the Process

Glenn Education 14 Comments

I talk a lot about habituation because I believe that it’s our best hope to find lasting relief from tinnitus.

It’s not a cure, but it’s entirely possible to get to this place where it stops bothering us, a place where your brain can tune it out like it does all other meaningless background noise.

I’ve also talked a lot about the various strategies people use to habituate, all of which involve changing the way we react to the sound emotionally – the very obstacle that prevents habituation from happening in the first place.

But what I don’t talk about nearly enough is the extreme volatility of the process itself.

The Roller Coaster of Relief:

Progress is rarely ever linear and each day is not usually a little bit better than the day before.

The habituation process is a lot more like a roller coaster. It often feels like three steps forward, two steps back. And experiencing that kind of setback, especially after a string of good days, can feel devastating.

So it’s important to understand that spikes and difficult days are a part of the habituation process, and not a sign that you’ve gone backwards. Your progress has not been erased. You’ve just been triggered back into having the old reaction again.

When you work to replace the old emotional reaction of fear, frustration, anxiety, panic, and depression – it doesn’t just go away, even if you start having good days. But the new mental conditioning you’re working to establish doesn’t just go away when you have a spike either.

The Family Dynamic Analogy:

I’ll give you a great analogy. I work hard to be a better person. I actively try to improve myself on a daily basis, and it’s reflected in the way I act around friends and colleagues.

And then I visit my family in my childhood home, and I might as well be a teenager again. We all just start yelling over one another, pushing each other buttons.

Because the family dynamic never changed – that old pattern never went away. I just developed new patterns of behavior that are dominant most of the time. But being around my family triggers the old dynamic.

A very similar thing is happening on difficult days throughout the tinnitus habituation process. Remember, the goal of habituation is to create a new emotional pattern, a new response to the sound that enables your brain to automatically tune it out more and more of the time. But the old pattern of fear is deeply engrained and will be triggered repeatedly throughout the process.

So whatever strategy you use to habituate, whether it’s the tinnitus focused meditation techniques that I teach, or any other, it’s important to understand that spikes and setbacks are going to happen. And when they do, it’s probably going to feel like you’re back to square one. But you’re not.

The trick is to remember this when times get tough. And understanding that even if you can’t do anything to lower the volume when your tinnitus is spiking, you can always make yourself more relaxed, more comfortable, and able to cope more effectively. Because the spike will pass. It always does.

How to Measure Progress with Daily Fluctuations:

Understanding that tinnitus spikes are part of the process raises an interesting question: with so many ups and downs along the way, how can you possibly measure progress?

When you live with tinnitus, there’s a tendency to obsessively measure the sound, to constantly check if it’s louder than it was before. But it’s not a helpful way to quantify your progress with habituation.

Instead, simply take a step back and look at your overall quality of life.

Ask yourself, “Is my overall quality of life better than it was before? Has it improved over time? Am I doing more of the things I want to do be doing, and bothered less my tinnitus more of the time?”

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then you know you’re on the right track.

Ultimately, habituation about improving quality of life, which is important, and something that not nearly enough doctors are talking about.

Comments 14

  1. Thanks for a great article. It’s helping me look back on some of those tougher days when the anticipation of vertigo was at its peak. I started to realize that my reaction to ‘what if’ kept me feeling anxious. Interestingly, I think I never focused on the tinnitus (or rather, the spike in sound didn’t bother me) because my ‘focus’ was on the vertigo. There were days when I noticed how loud the sound was in my left ear…but, I sort of just marveled at it. I remember telling myself, “Wow, Okay…this is loud.” But I always sensed it would eventually go down or back to my ‘normal’…which it has. Plus experience also has shown that to be true. There are days, unless I’m reading about Meniere’s, the tinnitus doesn’t even cross my mind. Right now, I can hear it (but that’s only because I’m ‘checking in’) but otherwise, as you say, it tends to blend in with other noises. I really believe our reaction to tinnitus or any other symptom we’re experiencing can keep us stuck, down and depressed. Moving forward, I have to work on not being so fearful of vertigo and I believe these last four months (September was a bad period) when I pushed myself to do those things I was afraid of doing anyway, truly helped to change my mindset and keep me positive…and less fearful. Thanks so much!

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      Hi Shaun, I am not. And while I do believe that TRT addresses the underlying issues that prevent habituation from occurring, and will help people find relief, I do not believe it’s the most effective strategy. What I teach is a type of tinnitus focused meditation. Because anything can be used as the focal point of meditation, and because it’s such a relaxing practice, by focusing on the sounds of tinnitus during meditation (and practicing every day) your brain starts to associate the calm and relaxation with the sound, changing your emotional reaction.

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  2. I have Pulsatile tinnitus that is essentially the same 24/7. Not very loud but at this point (3 months in) still often bothersome, and distressing. I do not notice a good deal of the time, but the anxiety/depression are there mostly. My understanding is that habituation may take 6-18 months, possibly sooner with the help of CBT, hearing aids (I have some hearing loss), etc. I do not get spikes but I would think that habituation will not be measured by a straight line. Thoughts?

  3. Glenn your article is a gods send as I start your habituation process with your brainwave entrainment programme (10days in now) as I know although things are not great just now I can see an improvement on my outlook to this which can only help to achieve my goal of full habituation. As you say I can’t let myself be discouraged by the bad days and to keep looking forward.

  4. I have had Tinnitus for many years. I am 63 now and starred at 25 . For many years I thought it went away. About 5 years ago, it showed back up and reared its ugly head. I did TRT therapy and had good success
    I don’t where the noise generators anymore but last year , it started bothering me I wore the devices again and then stopped
    I had spikes along the way but did not bother me as much. Yesterday out of nowhere it started getting louder as it has done before but this time the old reaction of fear kicked in
    Not sure I should try the device again

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      It can’t hurt to try, but it might be good to try other coping techniques and other habituation strategies as well. I would start with the maskers though.

  5. I had severe tinnitus for 3 years (16-19 years old). It was accompanied with stress, depression, panic etc. When I decided I should accept it and live my life, it suddenly went away! One night I felt spasms in my ear and a sharp pain. The next day it was not there. It was like a miracle. The next 20 years it bothered me for a few days sometimes. But it always went away after feeling this spasm/flutter in my ear. Last year severe tinnitus started again during a stressful period. I am sure tinnitus is stress related for me. And then begins the vicious circle. I don`t know what this spasm is and how I could make it happen again so that T. goes away. I believe that people who have T due to stress can be cured if they change their lifestyle. It`s not easy to make such a change of course. So I wish there was a drug or sth that could create this spasm to the ear that makes the T go away. For me this is the case….

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