Arriving home from a busy day of errands and shopping, I enter my quiet apartment and sigh with relief. New York City noise, while a bit reduced from pre-pandemic levels, can still be overwhelming. Squealing bus brakes, speeding motorcycles, and booming construction equipment form a backdrop of noise that can wear on my senses. Especially with my hearing aids amplifying each squeal, jack hammer, and rev of an engine.
But when my tinnitus is acting up – and it seems to spike each year as the weather turns colder – the sigh of relief upon entering my quiet home becomes a groan of frustration. The silence is marred by the ringing and buzzing in my ears. My tinnitus is back.
A constant unwanted companion
As you might know, tinnitus is the experience of sound when none is present. It most commonly manifests as a buzzing or ringing but it can take many forms, including music. For some people, tinnitus is loud enough to drown out speech, while for others it is a quiet purr in the background.
The sound can come and go depending on the weather, changes in diet, stress levels, and a whole host of other factors, but for many, it is a constant unwanted companion. Tinnitus is more common among people with hearing loss, but it also occurs in people with typical hearing.
Living with tinnitus can be extremely debilitating. The constant noise can lead to social isolation, depression, and feelings of hopelessness. When mine spikes it immediately impacts my mood. I get frustrated because I cannot hear as well over the sound, and fearful that it may not recede into the background again. It saps my energy and my ability to focus.
But there are ways to help alleviate the discomfort.
Strategies for managing tinnitus
When patients ask providers about tinnitus, we often get few definitive answers, in part because there is currently no cure or medical treatment. Some audiologists may recommend tinnitus-masking hearing aids (many hearing aids now offer this feature), while others may simply say, “There is not much you can do.”
Yet there are many things we can do to better manage our tinnitus. Providers can assist by sharing the techniques below.
Masking the sound
Playing music or white noise in the background can sometimes mask the unwanted noise. This is why hearing aids can sometimes help with tinnitus. By bringing additional noise into our ears, we can offset the “phantom sound” of our tinnitus. This is one of the reasons I wear extended-wear hearing aids. The real sounds around me overshadow the roar of my tinnitus, making it easier to sleep.
Distracting your brain
Giving your brain somewhere else to focus can be a powerful strategy. When you are watching a favorite TV program or reading an engrossing book, your attention goes elsewhere – importantly, away from your tinnitus. Physical activity can also help by focusing your mind on the present moment. During my daily yoga practice, I hardly ever notice my tinnitus because my mind is occupied elsewhere. Exercise also helps relieve some of the stress that tinnitus can bring.
Stress and anxiety about tinnitus can boost its negative impact. Mindfulness techniques like breathing exercises, meditation or yoga can help you feel calmer overall, allowing you to live more peacefully with the unwanted sounds. The first time I tried meditation at a yoga retreat, I was surprised to find the ringing slip into the background. Keeping the practice going at home has been life-changing.
Using cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) uses a variety of techniques to change the way a person responds to negative stimuli. With practice, strategies like stopping and breathing, acting as an observer of the stimuli, and putting things in perspective can train people to respond more calmly to their tinnitus. The tinnitus doesn’t go away, but the reaction to it eases.
Talking to your patients about tinnitus
Tinnitus is a common condition for people with hearing loss that can be just as or even more bothersome at times. We need our providers’ help in sifting through the fads and scams that abound on the internet so we can find the tools that really help.
The Ida Institute provides several tools that providers can use to help assess and work with clients on their tinnitus, as well as resources for people with tinnitus.
Visit Ida’s tinnitus tools for providers here. And the resources for people with tinnitus here.
Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of LivingWithHearingLoss.com, a popular blog and online community for people living with hearing loss and tinnitus, and executive producer of We Hear You, an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. She also serves on the board of directors of Hearing Loss Association of America. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues. Connect with Shari: Blog, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter.