Have you ever felt that unsettling sensation of ringing in your ears? What about a chirping, buzzing, whistling or hissing sound that isn’t really there? It’s called tinnitus.
The majority of Australians will experience temporary tinnitus at some point in their lives, usually after exposure to loud noises. When it sticks around for months, or even years, it can cause sleepless nights, concentration problems, depression, and anxiety.
About 14 per cent of the population live with persistent tinnitus – and it can have a big impact.
“We’ve noticed more people telling us about their tinnitus during COVID,” says British Tinnitus Association’s communication manager Nic Wray. “The stress of living through the pandemic does seem to have exacerbated lots of people’s tinnitus.”
Tinnitus and stress
Most of the time, tinnitus doesn’t have a clear cause (although it’s often associated with hearing loss and sometimes occurs due to other health conditions). However, stress and anxiety can be big factors. “And it can be difficult to unpick that: is the stress and anxiety triggering the tinnitus, or is it the tinnitus triggering the anxiety and stress?” says Ms Wray. “And sometimes it’s very difficult to stop that spiralling.”
The effects of tinnitus varies greatly between individuals. Some people are not distressed by it, but it can have a big impact on others. Audiologist Farah Kiani is keen to highlight that help is out there. “The main thing is for people to know they are not alone, and you can talk to somebody,” says Ms Kiani.
If you have hearing loss, it’s worth trying out hearing aids to see if they can help reduce your tinnitus symptoms. “Having a hearing aid can help reduce your awareness of tinnitus. That’s because hearing aids amplify sounds that you want to hear, and that distracts your brain from the tinnitus,” says Ms Kiani.
How can you help tinnitus?
Relaxation techniques are often used to manage tinnitus. “When we’re under a lot of stress, our system is automatically more alert, it’s monitoring our senses more – and hearing is one of those. So, if we’re hyper-alert and stressed, our body is monitoring sound more closely and that includes the tinnitus,” says Ms Wray.
Luckily, there are lots of relaxation techniques you can try. For example, deep breathing exercises, meditation, and even visualisation exercises. Close your eyes and imagine yourself somewhere else and really pay attention to the surroundings you’ve created to relax and take your mind off of the tinnitus.
Yoga and tai chi can be helpful, and mindfulness meditation is also worth a try. The research is still in the early stages but studies have found mindfulness meditation to be very effective at reducing stress.
A more general look at your physical and mental wellbeing is also a good idea. Ensure you’re getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, taking time for yourself and eating healthily as all these things can influence how stress affects us. Quiet background noise can also be very helpful if tinnitus keeps you awake at night – whether that’s white noise, soothing sounds or music, an audio bedtime story or relaxing hypnosis track.
CBT for tinnitus
Cognitive behaviour therapy, or CBT – a form of counselling weaving in coping strategies and helping people reframe things – is a recognised treatment option. CBT can provide a helpful framework for understanding how you’re feeling about the tinnitus, and how tinnitus and stress are linked. Tinnitus retraining therapy can also be very helpful.
Ask your audiologist or GP about referrals, or see if you can self-refer. “Waiting lists are not as short as they could be, so some people might want to try and find a private counsellor,” says Ms Wray. That’s if the option is available to you. Or try other relaxation techniques at home while you’re waiting, because there are lots of things that can help.
Apps and podcasts
There are lots of apps and podcasts that can help – and many of them are free. A search for ‘bedtime stories’ or ‘visualisation’ in whichever podcast platform you use will likely bring up multiple results.
Dr Ed Farrar developed tinnitus in his 20s, and recently co-founded an app specifically for tinnitus, called Oto (joinoto.com). It combines multiple techniques to help guide people to build daily self-help habits.
“Whilst I’ve been fortunate enough to adjust and manage [my tinnitus], learning to live with the ringing was tough at times. My co-founder George Leidig had a similar experience,” explains Dr Farrar. “During our time as doctors, we saw many patients with tinnitus who weren’t as lucky. We saw how tinnitus had a huge impact on their quality of life and mental health.”
They designed Oto with this in mind. “The app provides instant access to science-based support and is backed by world-leading tinnitus experts,” adds Dr Farrar. “Oto’s tools train your brain to respond differently to the sound and, gradually, the changes in your neural network mean you hear the ringing less and less, bringing you to a point of habituation, when someone no longer notices it at all.”
Connect with others
Sharing experiences can help you feel less alone, and allow you to learn about coping strategies that have really helped others. Look out for support groups in your area, or online workshops and webinars that you can attend.
– With PA
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