Tackling tinnitus during COVID

By Helle Gjønnes Møller

This week is Tinnitus Week, an initiative organized by the British Tinnitus Association to raise awareness and educate the public about tinnitus. To mark the occasion, we spoke with Clinical Audiologist and Tinnitus Expert Regitze Willemoës about the nature of the condition and about learning how to cope. We also touched on the inevitable topic of COVID and how the global pandemic is currently impacting people with tinnitus. 

A symptom, not an illness
Tinnitus is often described as a perception of noise or ringing in the ears. The ancient Egyptians referred to tinnitus as the ‘bewitched ear’ and used natural remedies in hopes of curing it. Science has since made tremendous progress, and we now know that tinnitus is not a disease or illness in itself, but rather a symptom of an underlying condition, covering everything from infections and earwax build-up to hearing loss and noise exposure.

Stress as a common contributor
“There are numerous possible causes to tinnitus,” says Regitze Willemoës, “but stress is an extremely common contributor. People who suffer from stress-related disorders are often prone to develop tinnitus. When the tinnitus then causes more stress, a vicious cycle is created. In itself, tinnitus is just a sound. What’s really exhausting and stressful is the worrying. Will this get worse? Will I go deaf?” 

How people react to tinnitus is highly individual and depends on how the autonomic nervous system responds to the sound. Willemoës explains: “The brain processes everything we encounter through structures that deal with emotions, also known as the limbic system. This helps us determine if something is positive or possibly a threat. If your brain then decides that the tinnitus is a potential threat, it can cause stress and anxiety and make it almost impossible to ignore the sound.”

Tinnitus during COVID
So how do people with tinnitus cope during an all-pervasive pandemic – in a situation that is extremely stressful and anxiety-provoking for everyone, let alone people with additional challenges? According to the British Tinnitus Association, COVID-19 has made tinnitus worse for nearly half of UK sufferers. And while Regitze fortunately hasn’t seen an equally severe trend among the tinnitus clients in her Copenhagen clinic, there has been a recent increase in people who directly connect their condition to COVID and its continuing concerns and uncertainties.

Learning to cope
While there is little we can do to eliminate the uncertainties of the pandemic, at least there are efficient methods available to help cope with the tinnitus. Willemoës applies a treatment method called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, helping clients to find a new attitude towards their tinnitus so that the symptoms no longer take up as much space in their lives. To relieve stress-related tinnitus, Willemöes instructs her clients to be mindful of their breathing. “Anything you can do to combat the autonomic stress response can be helpful. Deep breathing, mediation, and yoga can all be really helpful. However, if a particular client truly dislikes the idea of meditation and yoga, we find a different form of relief, like going for a walk. What’s important is that we find what works for them as individuals.”  

In addition, Willemöes relies on the methods developed by the Ida Institute to help build hope and resilience for tinnitus clients and identify relevant counseling and coping strategies. Tools like the Tinnitus Thermometer is a fundamental and instinctive part of her approach, helping her to understand how her clients are experiencing their tinnitus and how they are coping. The Tinnitus Forecast graph helps to visualize how the tinnitus develops over time and illustrate that although the condition may not subside, the level of distress it causes is likely to decrease. This emphasizes an important and encouraging point: that many people with tinnitus find that the condition becomes more manageable and less intrusive over time.

Ida’s Tinnitus Management tools were developed in collaboration with leading audiologists from around the world and are freely available to everyone.