gael hannan

De-stressing the distress of hearing loss

By Gael Hannan

Hearing loss causes stress, and negative stress, we’re told, is not good for us. It can incubate an alarmingly long list of health issues. In fact, chronic stress can cause hearing loss.

While this isn’t good news, to most people with hearing loss, it’s not new news. We live it every day.

We get frustrated when, suddenly, a conversation spirals away from us. We inwardly seethe when our loved ones seem to forget about us and our communication needs.

The diagnosis of hearing loss confirms our suspicions but ticks us off anyway. Then comes the intense irritation of breaking in new hearing aids.

When I’m stressed, I lose decibels. My hearing tanks, drops through the floor, gets really bad. Call it whatever you want, but when stress flares I have to ask for a lot of repeats and my tinnitus gets LOUDER. 

I know this is a temporary phenomenon that wouldn’t show up on a hearing test but during the stressful situation, it’s real. For example, I’m always nervous that I won’t understand the customs officers when traveling between Canada and the US. I worry that my stress is visible and will make me look suspicious. During an interview, a friend was so nervous that she couldn’t remember her own name. 

People with hearing loss panic when pulled over by the police at night – who doesn’t? – but we have the extra pressure of knowing that this is going to be a very challenging conversation. There’s stress in even the simple conversations that have positive meaning for us but which are conducted outside our hearing comfort zone in a non-accessible manner.  

We wear all this stress for many reasons, many of them personal. But I believe that we don’t want to get things wrong, we don’t want to appear stupid. And when we’re rattled, distracted, nervous, tired, or feeling that we are not in control, we can’t give our usual and required focus to speech signals, both the audible and visual cues, that help us make sense of what’s being said. Our confidence falters, followed quickly by our communication. Our tinnitus may start roaring. 

To make the situation worse, some of us have a habit of frowning as we try to understand, which is often misunderstood. People might not realize, “Hey, she’s having trouble understanding and possibly stressed.” My frown, which is unintentional, might be interpreted as anger, annoyance, or impatience. This look of stress tend to be contagious, and when the people I’m talking to frown back at me, my stress goes even higher.  

I’m not saying this happens to all people with hearing loss – just the thousands that I know. Believe me, this is a bona fide thing about the hearing loss life.

So how do we handle those situations where we’re rattled, distracted, nervous, tired, or not in control? It’s important for us to learn some new things about ourselves and modify some others.  

We must:

  • Understand and believe that we are not alone in our hearing loss and that we have the right to ask for accommodation.
  • To make an inaccessible situation accessible, practice and model good communication.
  • Self-identify as having hearing loss, clearly explain how to improve the situation, and feel confident in asking for repeats.
  • Prepare for situations that we know are challenging and stress-inducing. Take a few deep breaths and remind ourselves that it’s going to be OK. “I’ve got this!” 
  • Understand our limitations. People like us don’t “do dark” or tolerate noisy situations, yet still we go out to restaurants where we struggle to understand what people are saying and what the specials are. If we can’t come up with a good communication strategy, maybe we should go to another restaurant. 
  • I now tell the customs officer that I have hearing loss and read lip, which usually gets me through quickly. When flying, I tell the gate staff that I don’t hear the boarding announcements, and it’s up to them to offer a solution.
  • Rest up. Communicating with hearing loss requires serious gobs of energy, so it’s important to get enough rest on a regular basis. We can’t skip this step; people with hearing loss need strength to navigate our noisy world. 
  • Intensive speechreading and focusing on captions in all forms can cause fatigue and eyestrain. Take breaks in long conversations or listening situations. Walk about, shake off the willies, clear the mind. Do some simple eye exercises. 
  • Keep fit. Before an event that requires us to be on top of hearing loss game, we can bring our mind and body to life with some stretches and a brisk walk. When blood flows freely through a healthy body, we are calmer. 

It has been my experience that this crucial aspect of living well with hearing loss has not been well addressed in the hearing healthcare clinic. How can audiologists support their clients in identifying and dealing with hearing loss stress? 

The client-centered care approach involves devoting some clinic time to discussing the broader issue of stress. Other positive strategies include providing clients with resources such as websites and other written material and connecting them to other people and organizations related to hearing loss.

We can de-stress the distress of hearing loss. Stress may be a constant, but it can be managed and reduced.