Have you ever felt trapped by a sound?
A noise that just gets under your skin and makes you want to run out of the room?
Maybe it’s the clicking of a fan as you try to fall asleep, the subtle buzz of a fluorescent light, or the screech of nails on a chalkboard. At its worst, it can feel like torture.
But what if you couldn’t escape it? What if you were forced to hear terrible, stressful noises all the time?
It’s not a pleasant thought. But for me, and for the hundreds of millions of people around the world who suffer from tinnitus, the medical term for ringing in the ears, it’s our everyday reality. And it drives a lot of people crazy.
We end up spending so much time and energy worrying about how loud it seems or what it sounds like. We look for ways to drown it out and miracle cures to quiet it down. But I’ve come to believe that it’s the wrong approach.
When you have tinnitus, the only question that really matters is: “Does it bother you?”
Because if it does, you can do something about it. It’s the one thing that you actually have the power to change. There may not be a cure, or a reliable way to reduce the volume, but you can get to a place where it stops bothering you and dramatically improve your quality of life.
You would never know it if you met me in a quiet room, but my head is a noisy place.
Usually, it’s a loud high pitched tone, but I hear other sounds, too. Sometimes I get multiple tones and whooshing noises. They made my life a living hell for a long time.
But today, things are different. I still hear my tinnitus, and it still spikes from time to time, but it rarely ever bothers me anymore. Because several years back, I stumbled onto an exercise that radically changed the way I react to the sound and allowed me to habituate.
You see, the human brain is incredibly good at filtering out meaningless background noise from our conscious awareness. This mental process is called habituation and it’s how were able to work in noisy offices and carry on conversations in crowded rooms.
But it’s also the answer to tinnitus.
There’s just one problem, and it’s a big one.
For reasons that will become clear in a moment, it’s simply not possible to habituate to a sound that implies a threat or carries a negative association of any kind, both of which describe tinnitus.
Our reaction to tinnitus is the root of the problem:
It can be hard to wrap your mind around the fact that the noise itself isn’t the problem. Obviously, if there was a way to silence your tinnitus, there wouldn’t be a problem in the first place.
But the underlying issue is that we react to the sound emotionally as if we’re in danger. And because our brains can’t tell the difference between a real and perceived threat, the reaction is the same.
In other words, the sound of our tinnitus triggers a stress response and puts us into a perpetual low level state of fight or flight.
Stress hormones flood the body, adrenaline goes up and our senses become heightened. It’s our body’s way of responding to danger and it happens automatically.
Most of us try to ignore the sound but fail because consciously ignoring it ultimately is an act of paying attention. I’ll give you an example: Don’t think about the yellow elephant.
You did it anyways, didn’t you? You pictured a yellow elephant.
It’s the same idea, but with tinnitus it’s worse. Because the harder we try to ignore it, the harder our brain fights to redirect our attention to the perceived source of the threat.
Under normal circumstances, when we have a stress response, our bodies return to baseline once the danger is resolved. But tinnitus doesn’t just go away. It becomes a vicious cycle of frustration, pain, and misery.
But there’s a silver lining to it all. The one thing that we can change is the very thing that prevents us from habituating and finding relief. We have the power to change our reaction to the sound.
It’s not easy because we react automatically, but it’s possible, and that’s all that matters.
Most people’s first instinct with tinnitus is to drown it out with background noise. Tinnitus is loudest in silence and ambient noise can help us cope.
But it doesn’t directly address the fundamental issue that prevents habituation from happening in the first place. It’s kind of like taking Advil for a broken noise. It might help you feel better in the moment, but it doesn’t treat the injury.
At its core, sound masking is just another way to ignore the problem. But serious problems don’t just go away when we ignore them. I’ve never “ignored away” a problem in my entire life.
Though I must admit, I say this all in hindsight. I didn’t habituate intentionally, at least not at first. I stumbled into it completely by accident as I struggled to meditate.
At the time, my tinnitus was getting worse and my meditation practice was really starting to suffer. It was becoming more and more difficult to focus on my breath with the sound of sirens blaring in my ears.
But one evening, lying in bed, trying to ignore the noise, I was hit with 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?
All I knew was that it felt like a bad idea. But I gave it a shot anyways. And it changed everything.
Flash of insight:
The first breakthrough happened almost immediately.
When you meditate, your mind tends to wander. It happens to everyone, especially people new to meditation. But it doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. Catching yourself when your mind wanders and bringing your focus back, starting over, is the actual exercise.
But this time, when my mind wandered, it wandered away from the sound. The realization hit me like a ton of bricks. For that brief moment, my tinnitus hadn’t bothered me at all. It was profound.
The second breakthrough happened a few minutes later. As I continued to meditate, focusing on the sound, I started to feel very relaxed. I was fairly experienced with meditation and when I stopped fighting to ignore the sound, I was able to meditate much more deeply.
And most surprising of all, when I finished, my tinnitus seemed quieter. It wasn’t actually quieter, it just wasn’t bothering me as much, so it didn’t seem as loud. I couldn’t believe it.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but my brain was starting to associate the deep relaxation of meditation with the sound of my tinnitus.
It was my first real taste of relief and the beginning of something much larger than myself.
It’s a journey:
Over the following few weeks, I continued to practice the technique and I was able to fully habituate.
After suffering for so long, it felt like I had discovered some kind of weird super power. It was hard to believe, but I was doing so much better. My stress levels dropped and my tinnitus stopped bothering me entirely. It never went away but my quality of life went way up.
It’s been several years now since I first stumbled on to tinnitus meditation and so much has changed.
I’ve been able to connect with hundreds of other tinnitus sufferers around the world, sharing ideas, learning, and being inspired. It’s been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my entire life.
And my ideas have evolved considerably, too. So much so in fact, that I ended up writing a new book called Rewiring Tinnitus: How I Finally Found Relief From the Ringing in My Ears! A book that is finally finished and jam packed with tools, techniques, meditations and so much more. (I’ve even created a comprehensive album of guided meditations and complementary audio to make it all easier for you!)
I believe tinnitus will be cured in the next ten to twenty years, but so much more research is needed. We still can only guess where tinnitus arises in the brain and have very little understanding of the underlying pathways and mechanisms involved.
But at the same time, there is hope for today. Because we can change our reaction to the sound. We can habituate.
It may not go away, or even become quieter, but we can get to a place where it stops bothering us, and in my book, that’s just as good. Because when it stops bothering us, we stop reacting and start to tune it out naturally.
We can improve our quality of life and that’s what matters most.