Treating Tinnitus: It’s Not About the Noise

Glenn Treatment 31 Comments

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.

More than meets the ears

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.

Habituation:

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.

Tinnitus pain

(Image Source: YouTube)

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.

Rewiring Tinnitus:

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 nose. 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.

woman-meditating-illustration-01

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.

brain-meditation

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!)

CLICK HERE TO GET A COPY OF MY NEW BOOK!

Conclusion:

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.

Comments 31

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  1. Love your book! Started meditating last week. Focusing is the hardest, but not giving up, practice makes perfect. I really want this to work. And that is the key not to give up and you have to want this to work to get results. Thank you.

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      Hi Judy, I’m so glad you enjoyed the book and I wish you the best of luck with the exercises! If you’re struggling a bit, I would recommend trying it with the audio program I wrote about it the book. The guided meditations I created will automatically put you in the deep state of relaxation necessary for it to work, regardless of what your tinnitus sounds like, or whether or not you’re experienced with meditation. It’s a much faster way to see results! If you ever have any questions, I’m always around: glenn@rewiringtinnitus.com.

  2. Hi Glenn, please keep up the great work you are doing. I purchased your book and audio programs and have used them daily for 3 months now and I believe I am just starting to maybe habituate. Any idea how much longer?

  3. I find it very hard to relax and always have therefore reading about Tinnitus and seeing one of the main points it to Relax with this sound ringing,humming, banging ect i find as with many others very hard.You say Meditation can help well the way i feel i will try anything Glenn so today i have found 2 new tools that may help with this Tinnitus i and others are suffering with.Tinnitus Trigger Tool and now Meditation.

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  4. the pharma maffia has no interested in spending money…. they will prescribe you pills against depression that will bring on more problems… that is the way it is

  5. I think I did something similar accidently. I had tinnitus sporadically since I was about 12 or 13. Never told anyone about it because I was scared. Finally in my 20s or 30s when it was becoming constant I talked to my doctor, had an MRI. No brain tumor. No aneurysm. So I decide not to worry and just go about my life. I guess I just got used to it. I get a variety of sounds and sometime I have to laugh a little because it reminds me of the space ship sounds from the movies and TV shows when I was a kid. I’m often reminded of the ant sounds from the movie Them. Having a weird sense of humor has helped. Glad I found your articles. 🙂

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      Hi Cathy, I’m glad you got used to it! It sounds like you’ve habituated naturally, which does happen for many people. And I agree, having a sense of humor definitely helps!

  6. My typewriter tinnitus comes and goes in an uneven fashion. Some clicks are short, some long with intermittent times between clicks and sometimes long times before any clicks. When I try your idea of focusing on the sound, it becomes Chinese water torture waiting for the next drop to fall. Any ideas?

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  7. Hi Glenn,

    I finished your book today and did my very first tinnitus meditation. I was anxious, but amazed at how good it felt!!! Thank you for that!

    I wanted to download the journaling tool and I clicked on the button saying “download for free.” However, I received a welcome memo from you and not the journaling tool. Could you please tell me where to go to get this form?

    Thank you again.

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  8. I read, rather than heard, the podcast you did for ATA and immediately bought the tinnitus book. I am deaf in one ear, most of what I hear are the tinnitus sounds. The concept of mediating to the sounds of tinnitus has been a real help. At this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for your podcast and book.

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  9. Hi Glen,
    I’ve read some articles that you have posted and I have to say the meditation approach is genius. I would have never thought of focusing on the sound as on my breathing when I meditate but I’ll give it a try. Just these few lines offered me so much insight.
    I’ve been fortunate enough to not experience tinnitus when awake and during my day, but it’s pestering me every night when I lie down and try to sleep or relax.I have behaved exactly like you described. My anxiety spiked, I’m frustrated and feel dumb because I consciously tell myself ” it’s just a sound” but when time comes to lie down it’s like I’m sleeping next to a factory.
    Mine behaves like a roaring sound in the distance and I feel anxious and alert like I’m waiting for something to happen.
    Sometimes it’s a bit deafened but even then I can’t help but focus too much on it since I feel like something is about to explode.
    This is largely affecting my emotional state since I have battled generalized anxiety and fortunately won a year ago. However some of the sensibility is still there and tinnitus coudln’t have come at a worse time. Just when I thought all is well. Oh well …
    I can’t wait for the book to arrive though and win this one too.
    Thank you!

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  10. I want to be optimistic after reading this but I find this to be ridiculous at the moment. I am going on 16 years of non stop tinnitus in both ears. For the first 15 I refused to let it stop me but the last year I have been running out of gas. I stumbled upon this article after a doctor mentioned this technique. So the suggestion is to focus on the tinnitus? That comes easy as it keeps me up at night. Greats me the moment I wake up when I do get to sleep. At any given time I have 2 to 5 different tones going on in each ear and at times pulsating and thumping. I get nauseous daily from the high screeches. I am an artist and sure I have my moments when I am in the zone but these times of clarity have become further apart, and fewer. I can’t help feel that this “technique” isn’t for everyone. Someone suggesting what you are enrages me because I feel it’s false hope.

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      Hi Andre, I completely understand your skepticism. However it’s important to understand that their is a huge difference between focusing on your tinnitus because it’s bothering you and what I am describing here, which is making the sound of your tinnitus the object of meditation. I totally understand how crazy of a proposition this seems on the surface, especially if you aren’t experienced with meditation and you are experiencing multiple fluctuating tones. I am well aware of how difficult this practice would be for someone in your position. I offer several tools that can help to make this practice much easier and more effective for someone new to meditation, such as this audio program. I encourage you to try the free sample of the guided brainwave entrainment meditations. (If you’d like to learn more, this post explains how the audio program makes tinnitus meditation easier and more effective.)

      Because meditation is such a calming/relaxing practice, and because anything can be used as the focal point of meditation, when you practice tinnitus focused meditation in a way where you actually achieve these states of relaxation, and you practice it every day, overtime your brain will start to associate the state of relaxation with the sounds of your tinnitus. This facilitates the habituation process. But it takes time. I’ve written about many other strategies to improve quality of life in the short term as people work through this process.

      This article doesn’t go into nearly as much detail as some of my other work. If you want to learn more about my story and strategies, you can check out my interview with the American Tinnitus Association, this presentation I gave on behalf of the Hearing Loss Association of America, or this presentation I gave to the Vestibular Disorders Association.

      I’m sorry you feel that this strategy offers false hope, and if you do end up trying it, I hope it helps you as much as it has me and the hundreds of other people I hear from on a regular basis. Best of luck to you! And if you ever have questions, feel free to reach out: glenn@rewiringtinnitus.com

  11. Hi Glenn, been living with two police cars, one in each ear, chasing speeders for much of twelve years. The “Noise” as I call it, never use the term “my tinnitus” because I do not want to make claim to that which I did not ask for. I also refer to it as “Screaming Ears” and other more derogatory names. But mine has a pattern, first day, right ear, loud, second day, higher pitch, both ears, louder, third day usually so high pitch it almost fades, both ears, what relief it is. Then back to the first day. Most of the time this 3 day cycle is constant. I have also read latest research that the “Vagus Nerve” may be involved, stimulating the audio cortex just inside the ears.

    Have both your book and Julian Hill’s where he claims that “the noise” has to do with the nervous system being over stimulate, giving credence to the Vagus Nerve concept. However, years ago I learned “bio feedback” on relaxation and below the neck my body is relaxed and on demand. So, to train the brain to do the same with “the noise” has been futile. Going to read your book again, just seems focusing upon that which is hell would only more deeply entrench it in the subconscious.

    Also, thanks for all the info and you effort in trying to assist us and other. Your generosity is appreciated. As for using outside sounds, Meniere’s has trashed the right ear and I have 50% remaining of the left.

    Thanks, Martin

  12. I think this is a good analogy, but the typo does make it seem a bit funny (or Freudian, maybe?).

    “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.”

    I assume you meant broken _nose_ ! If Advil treated broken NOISE, we’d have the magic cure. 😀

    Kris, 20+ year tinnitus _habitué_

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      1. I have just started reading your information and think it might be helpful for me as I try to deal better with my tinnitus/vertigo condition. You show on one of your sites a tinnitus trigger tool, a journaling page you suggest using, that I would like to try using. However, when I try to download it or acquire it, i get nothing. I get a message that I can’t be added to the list. Once I received a message saying I would receive it momentarily and I never did. I don’t know if your system has a problem or if I’m doing something wrong, but I would really like to try working with this tool to see if I can try some of your methods. Can you help me?

        I found a link that indicated I could just print a copy but it wouldn’t work. Is there a link like that one that would work better?

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