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Learning to Live with Tinnitus

Posted 18 Feb '14 by Gill Wier

This month Gill Wier met David Stockdale, chief executive of the British Tinnitus Association when she was asked to speak at a support group for people who have problems with tinnitus.  In this blog post Gill seeks to raise awareness about the condition and the support available to people who experience it.

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus is “the perception of sound in the absence of a corresponding external sound”. Most people experience tinnitus occasionally – for example a “ringing in the ears” after you have been to a loud concert or night club.  Normally this sound is no longer audible after a few hours, however some people have persistent sounds in their ears that are generated within their own auditory pathways.  At the support group I attended people reported a range of different sounds including high pitched whistling, hissing or wind-like noises which could occur in either one or both ears.  The precise cause of tinnitus is unknown although it can be linked to hearing loss, exposure to loud noise and some medical conditions. 

What impact does tinnitus have on emotional well-being?

Those I met at the support group described initial anxiety when they first developed tinnitus and a sense of urgency to find a cure.  To have the sounds constantly there is incredibly frustrating and leads some to feel anger, depression or despair.  Sleeping can be difficult, as the sounds seem louder when there is silence and it can seem impossible to relax and switch off,  leading to anxiety about lack of sleep.  Tinnitus can impair concentration on tasks and make it difficult to enjoy social situations, for example, being in a noisy pub can exacerbate tinnitus and make it difficult to hear what friends are saying.

What treatment is available?

No “cure” has yet been found for tinnitus but there are some devices such as white noise generators that can be worn in the ear to reduce the contrast between the tinnitus and silence.  This can help the brain learn not to pay attention to the tinnitus signals so that over time the person is less aware of it.  Counselling can provide an opportunity to talk about what it’s like having tinnitus and to learn some techniques and strategies for reducing the emotional distress associated.  CBT techniques can help identify and challenge unhelpful thoughts you may be having in response to the tinnitus.

 Many people continue to experience the tinnitus for years, so there is a need to find ways to live with it as part of everyday experience.  It is important to find ways to relax and to continue doing things you enjoy.

Awareness and Acceptance

At the group I shared some ideas on how to reduce the dominance of tinnitus in their lives.  I led the group in an awareness exercise which helped them to focus on each part of their body in turn and on using each of their senses to become more aware of sights and sounds in the room around them.  The group members reported that this helped them to feel calmer and to notice other aspects of their experience rather than being focused only on the tinnitus sounds. 

Finding a way to accept or even “make friends with” the tinnitus is a good strategy for dealing with it long term, whilst fighting against or becoming angry at it tends to lead to more emotional distress and can make the tinnitus seem worse.  One person told his story of moving from a place of anxiety and fear of the future towards acceptance of the tinnitus as part of his experience, even beginning to see the opportunities it presents to develop his other senses and to be creative.

For more information and support visit the British Tinnitus Association Website