For the last several months, I’ve been somewhat singularly focused on the problem that so many us of deal with on a daily basis: Tinnitus.
You see, I’ve had ringing in my ears for as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t always a problem. For most of my life, it was quiet and rarely ever bothered me. I just lived with it.
But five years ago, a rare and incurable inner ear disorder called Meniere’s disease made my Tinnitus a lot worse. And over the years, as my Meniere’s symptoms improved, my Tinnitus didn’t. Actually, it got worse.
I started having a hard time falling asleep. It was hard to focus, and my stress and anxiety levels were going through the roof. The sound of my Tinnitus was slowly driving me crazy.
But today, my Tinnitus no longer bothers me at all. In my journey with Meniere’s disease, I stumbled on to countless techniques that completely rewired my mental, emotional, and physiological reaction to the sound.
So for the last several months, I’ve been working hard on the Rewiring Tinnitus book. My goal is not only to provide a better understanding of Tinnitus, but to offer a new kind of treatment plan and provide all of the specific techniques, strategies, and tools you will need to learn to live with the sound.
I still have a lot of work left to do, but this morning I hit my first major milestone – I officially finished the first draft! I launched the Rewiring Tinnitus Facebook page, too.
As this week also happens to be the American Tinnitus Association’s annual Tinnitus Awareness Week, I wanted to shed some more light on the problem, offer a solution and continue to raise awareness for this invisible condition that causes so many people so much pain and suffering.
Tinnitus is much larger problem than most people realize, and one that deserves far more attention, and awareness, than it gets.
Tinnitus by the Numbers:
Tinnitus is a way bigger problem than most people realize. It’s surprising that people aren’t talking about it more.
- Nearly 50 Million Americans – roughly 15% of the population- have some degree of Tinnitus.
- 30% of senior citizens experience Tinnitus
- 20 million Americans report chronic, burdensome, life-disrupting Tinnitus
- 2 million Americans report extreme cases of severe Tinnitus
- 1 in 5 American teens has experienced some degree of permanent noise-induced hearing loss, putting them at a much greater risk of Tinnitus, according to a report from the World Health Organization
- Tinnitus is the most prevalent service-related disability among US Veterans, with 9.6% of veterans receiving Tinnitus disability compensation
- The number of US Veterans who experience Tinnitus is estimated to be closer to 40%
- By 2017, the Department of Veterans Affairs expects to spend $3 billion annually on Veteran Tinnitus treatment and compensation for Tinnitus Disability
- Worldwide, it is estimated that close to 600 million people suffer from Tinnitus
- There a quite a few underlying conditions that cause Tinnitus: hearing loss (both age-related and noise-induced), ear injury, TMJ, infection, vestibular disorders like Meniere’s disease, and circulatory system disorders.
- Many vitamins, supplements, and medications are known to cause Tinnitus, too.
(Statistics from to a 2011-2012 survey by the CDC)
It’s a Brain Problem:
For a long time, we thought Tinnitus originated in the ears. Most of the early Tinnitus research reflected that assumption. But it was wrong. We now know that Tinnitus originates in the brain.
And while we have identified many regions in the brain that are believed to play a role in Tinnitus, the bigger picture is still a mystery. We still don’t know why it happens, or the specific underlying mechanisms involved.
But we do have some of the answers. For instance, we know that the human ear is a noisy environment. In fact, the Cochlea (the small snail-shaped sensory organ in the inner ear) is so loud that it actually produces a measurable sound called Otoacoustic emissions.
Studies have shown that even people with no history of Tinnitus can hear the sounds of Tinnitus under the right conditions. When an environment is quiet enough, just about everyone is capable of hearing the various noises of the Cochlea, as well as the background electrical noise present along the auditory nerve and hearing pathways that connect our ears with our brain.
Tinnitus then, at least according to the Neurophysiological model developed by Jonathan Hazel and Pawel Jastreboff in the early 1990’s, is the result of your brain turning up the volume of these internal, natural noises. Typically, this seems to happen in response to some change in your sound environment, like hearing loss or exposure to loud noise.
The point, however, is that the sounds of Tinnitus are in fact harmless, regardless of what they sound like or how loud they seem.
The only difference between someone who is tormented by their Tinnitus, and someone who isn’t bothered at all, is that the sufferer perceives the sound as a threat or an annoyance, and their body reacts automatically, as if they were in danger.
Why is it so hard to ignore?
Most people happen to be very good at tuning out meaningless background noise. It’s why we can get work done in a noisy environment and how we can have conversations in loud restaurants.
This mental process is called habituation, and in a very real sense, it lets our brain turn down the volume of any sounds that aren’t important. We do this automatically all the time.
Habituation is also the answer to Tinnitus, but there’s a big problem: it is simply not possible to habituate to any sound that implies a threat, an annoyance, or if it carries a negative association of any kind.
If you think about it from an evolutionary perspective, it makes a lot of sense. We use sound to monitor our environment for threats. Our prehistoric ancestors would never want to tune out the sound of a growling tiger in the middle of the night, or any other noises that imply danger for that matter.
So the question is, why do we perceive our Tinnitus as a threat if it isn’t one?
Part of the answer stems from a lack of understanding. The sudden onset of a loud and terrible noise is terrifying, and many people end up believing that something is terribly wrong with them.
But it goes much deeper than that. When we hear a sound for the first time, if it’s important enough, or causes enough of an emotional impact, we assign meaning to it and react accordingly, both emotionally and physiologically. Over time, if our response to the sound remains constant, the reaction becomes automatic.
With Tinnitus, our first reaction is typically one of fear. After a while, if the sound doesn’t go away, the fear starts to build. The fear also triggers a stress response. Stress hormones, like adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine flood our system, priming the body to react to danger. Our senses become heightened, our hearing more acute. And the harder we try to ignore it, the harder our brain will fight to redirect our attention to the source of the perceived threat by turning up the volume even higher.
To put it another way, the more we try to ignore it, the worse it gets. We also start to associate the sound of our Tinnitus with the feelings of frustration. The sound becomes a constant source of stress and emotional turmoil. Which of course we try to ignore, only to further fuel our frustration in a never-ending vicious cycle.
What can you do about it?
While there may not be a cure for Tinnitus, there is a solution. Remember, habituation is the answer, but because it’s only possible when you don’t perceive your Tinnitus as a threat, you have to focus on reprogramming your automatic negative response. Ideally, the goal is to replace it with a positive response, or at the very least, one that’s emotionally neutral.
In my opinion, the best way to do this is with a simple technique that not only calms your nervous system, but targets the very source of the negative association, and offers your brain something positive to latch on to instead. I call it Tinnitus Focused Meditation.
Meditation had always helped me to manage my anxiety and cope with Meniere’s disease, but as my Tinnitus got worse, it became much more difficult. I was having such a hard time with it that I started to dread meditation and almost stopped entirely. But one night, lying in bed, struggling to meditate, I had an idea. If meditation involved focusing my attention on to a single point of awareness, like my breath or a mantra, what would happen if I focused on the sound of my Tinnitus instead?
I didn’t know, but I gave it a shot, and it ended up changing everything for me. When I finished, I could still hear my Tinnitus, but it wasn’t bothering me nearly as much. I didn’t understand what was happening at the time, but I had stumbled onto a powerful technique for enabling habituation.
Because meditation is so relaxing, and causes an immediate reduction in stress levels by calming the nervous system, and because I was focusing on the sound as I meditated, my brain was starting to associate the deep relaxation of meditation with the sound of my Tinnitus. I continued to practice, and over a short period of time, my Tinnitus improved dramatically. This simple exercise had completely rewired my emotional, psychological, and physical response to the sound.
I was also able to evolve the technique by drawing on other Tinnitus treatment strategies and found countless ways to make Tinnitus Focused Meditation even more effective.
My forthcoming book, Rewiring Tinnitus (**UPDATE: AVAILABLE NOW**), will offer a comprehensive Tinnitus treatment strategy that incorporates this approach as it’s foundation. But in the meantime, I have written several previous posts that go into more depth. I encourage you to give it a try!
Tinnitus is a big problem, but you can help to make a difference.
First, help me raise awareness by sharing this article with your friends and family.
But also consider making a donation to one of the following organizations:
Donate to the American Tinnitus Association – The ATA is dedicated to helping Tinnitus patients by providing access to information, education, and funding Tinnitus research initiatives.
Donate to Vestibular Disorders Association – VEDA is an incredible organization that exists to educate, support, and advocate for patients with Vestibular disorders. I am proud to have worked with VEDA for nearly 18 months as an Ambassador board member and volunteer.
Donate to the Hearing Health Foundation – The Hearing Health Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to helping people with Tinnitus and hearing loss by focusing on prevention and funding new research.