Last night, I experienced one of the loudest tinnitus spikes I’ve had in a very long time.
And today, now that I’m feeling better, I want to talk to you a little bit more about habituation, what it’s like to have a tinnitus spike after you’ve habituated, and how you can cope more effectively over the long-term.
But first, let’s start with the basics. Habituation is a mental process that allows us to filter out meaningless, repetitive sensory stimuli (like sound) from our conscious awareness.
This is an important part of human cognition, because at any given moment, your brain can only process a tiny amount of available sensory information.
Just think about all of the different things that are happening right now that you aren’t paying attention to – background noise, air temperature, the feeling of your clothing against your skin, everything else in your visual field, smells, minor aches and pains – the list is endless.
And if we weren’t able to tune it all out and focus our attention, we wouldn’t be able to function at all. We would be constantly overwhelmed with information.
An Evolutionary Basis for Habituation:
At some point in our prehistoric history, in order to survive, we evolved these filtering mechanisms to tune things out. And until there’s a cure for tinnitus, this filtering mechanism, or habituation, is our best hope for finding relief.
But when it comes to tinnitus, there’s a problem, because these filtering mechanisms also serve as an alarm system.
When our brain perceives a stimulus that it interprets as something dangerous or threatening, it grabs our attention and triggers a stress response to respond that danger.
The other issue is that our brains can’t tell the difference between a real threat and an imagined one, like tinnitus, so the outcome is the same. It trips the alarm, grabs our attention, and triggers a stress response that never ends because out tinnitus doesn’t just go away.
Luckily, we can change the way we react to the sound, and once we do, these filtering mechanisms can tune out the sound of tinnitus just like they do with all other meaningless background noise, like they should have been doing all along.
Post-Habituation Tinnitus Spikes:
I habituated a long time ago. These days, my tinnitus rarely ever bothers me, at least not in any meaningful way. And most of the time, it’s so far in the background of my awareness that it’s almost like it’s not there at all.
But I do still occasionally get spikes.
All day yesterday, I had been dealing with a small flare up of my Meniere’s disease symptoms. I was a bit dizzy and there was a pronounced feeling of fullness in my right ear. It wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle, but watching TV last night, I felt a whooshing sensation as the pressure suddenly ramped up and a new much higher-pitched sound exploded in my right ear.
The old me would have panicked. My stress levels would have gone through the roof and I would have suffered in misery for hours, if not days. But things are different now.
I was startled, but within minutes, I was able to dramatically reduce the emotional and psychological impact.
So I’m going to walk you through what I did next, step by step. Because even if you’ve habituated, your tinnitus isn’t gone. And part of living well with tinnitus is being able to effectively deal with these kinds of issues as they occur.
The Tinnitus Reaction Technique:
The first thing I did was pause the TV. I always stop whatever it is I happen to be doing and give it my full attention. I find that fighting to ignore the sound only makes it worse.
Next, I tried to inject a bit of rationality into the situation and mentally reframe what was happening. I thought to myself, “Huh, that’s interesting. I haven’t heard that before. I wonder what’s going on here. Let me explore this.”
Forcing this kind of rational thought helps to prevent me from having a fear or anxiety response.
I then closed my eyes, and took several deep breaths, consciously relaxing my muscles with each exhale. This doesn’t make it go away, but it does calm me down, further helping to prevent panic, because panic makes it so much worse.
Next, I tried to remind myself that it’s just a spike, and not a reason to freak out – I’ve had tons of spikes before and they always pass. There’s no reason to think this one will be any different. I was fine before this, everything will go back to normal soon.
And lastly, I chose a coping strategy and I used it immediately. I chose meditation, specifically tinnitus focused meditation. But that’s not the only way.
When you’ve already habituated, sound masking, distraction, or anything that promotes mental or physical relaxation are all excellent strategies.
I’ve practiced this technique for a long time now, to the point where it has almost become an automatic response.
So after a few minutes of meditating to this new sound, I was calm again. It was still quite loud, but it wasn’t really bothering me anymore. I was able to fall asleep without any issues, and when I woke up this morning, it was almost back to normal.
I encourage you all to give this a try, but keep in mind that it takes practice. Our instinct is to react emotionally with panic and fear. It takes practice and consistency to override the negative conditioning.
But it’s worth it, because when my tinnitus spikes, I have the tools I need to cope effectively and prevent it from ever becoming a problem.
Is is possible to have a set back after a year or more of habituation?
It’s possible, but it’s also possible that it’s just a spike and that you will pick back up where you left off once it’s passed. If it is a setback though and something has in fact changed, you can work to habituate again and typically it doesn’t take as long the second time around.
How long do spikes typically last? I’m experiencing one for the first time after having tinnitus most of my life and it not bothering me at all. This new tone is lower (more melodic) and fluctuates from being spotty (or like Morse code) and now to a steady tone. It’s been around for the last 5 days.
Hi Lauren, it’s hard to say because it really varies greatly from situation to situation and person to person. Has it improved at all since you left this comment?