When chronic tinnitus affects your well-being, finding ways to tune out can be extremely helpful. Abi Jackson learns more.
About one in three people experience tinnitus at some point – often a buzzing, buzzing or ringing in the ear, when there is no external cause. However, around 13% of the population live with persistent tinnitus – and this can have a big impact.
According to the British Tinnitus Association (BTA, tinnitus.org.uk), 9.3% of people living with tinnitus have had thoughts of suicide or harming themselves in the past two years, with 87% saying they think about their tinnitus every day.
The charity, which surveyed 2,600 people, also found that a third admitted to withdrawing from social situations and feeling as though their partner and family ‘didn’t understand’.
“We’ve noticed during Covid, more people are telling us about their tinnitus,” BTA communications manager Nic Wray says as Tinnitus Week 2022 begins. “The stress of living through the pandemic seems to have exacerbated many people’s tinnitus.”
Tinnitus and stress
Most of the time, tinnitus has no clear cause (although it is often associated with hearing loss and sometimes occurs due to other health conditions). However, stress and anxiety can be important factors. “And it can be difficult to sort this out: does stress and anxiety trigger tinnitus, or does tinnitus trigger anxiety and stress?” Wray said. “And sometimes it’s very difficult to stop this spiral.”
She says tinnitus is a “very individual” thing: “Some people don’t have it, but for some people it can have that impact.” Audiologist Farah Kiani, of the High Street Hidden Hearing Clinic (hiddenhearing.co.uk), agrees – and as Wray is keen to point out that help is there: “The main thing is that people know that they are not alone, and you can talk to someone.”
If you have hearing loss, Kiani says “having a hearing aid can help reduce your awareness of tinnitus. That’s because hearing aids amplify the sounds you want to hear, and it distracts your brain from tinnitus.” (Free hearing tests are available from Hidden Hearing and Specsavers).
How can you help tinnitus?
Wray says: “A lot of tinnitus management relies on relaxation techniques. When we’re under a lot of stress, our system is automatically more alert, it monitors our senses more – and hearing is one of them. So , if we are hyper-alert and stressed, our body monitors the sound more closely and that includes tinnitus.”
Kiani adds: “There are many techniques you can try. For example, deep breathing exercises, meditation and even visualization exercises. Imagine yourself somewhere else and really pay attention, for example, if there is a river, an ocean, the color, how you feel, all those kinds of things can help.”
Yoga and tai chi can be helpful, and mindfulness meditation is also worth trying. “It’s been shown — and the research is quite recent — to be very effective, and more effective than standard relaxation techniques,” Wray says.
She also suggests “generally looking at your physical and mental well-being, so making sure you get enough sleep, exercising regularly” etc., as all of these things can influence how the stress affects us. Kiani says “it’s a good idea to stick to a bedtime routine. And even things like cutting down on caffeine – some studies have shown that can help.” Quiet background noise can also be very helpful if tinnitus is keeping you awake at night – whether it’s white noise, soothing sounds or music, a bedtime audio story or a music track. relaxing hypnosis.
TCC for tinnitus
Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT — a form of counseling that weaves in coping strategies and helps people reframe things — is a recognized treatment option. Wray says it can provide a “useful framework for understanding how you feel about tinnitus and how tinnitus and stress are related”, while Kiani adds “tinnitus retraining therapy can be very helpful”.
Ask your audiologist or GP for referrals, or see if you can refer yourself. “Waiting lists aren’t as short as they could be, so some people may want to try to find a private counselor,” Wray says — if that’s possible for you. “Or try other techniques, because there are a lot of things that can help.”
Apps and podcasts
For all of these things, there are plenty of apps and podcasts out there — and many of them are free (for example, search for “bedtime stories” or “visualization” on whatever podcast platform you’re using).
Dr Ed Farrar, a former RAF and NHS doctor who developed tinnitus in his twenties, co-founded a specially designed tinnitus app called Oto (joinoto.com). It combines all of these techniques, guiding people to build daily habits of self-help.
“Although I had the chance to adapt and manage [my tinnitus], learning to live with the ringtone was difficult at times. My co-founder George Leidig had a similar experience,” says Farrar. “During our career as doctors, we have seen many patients with tinnitus who were not so 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 scientific support and is backed by global tinnitus experts,” adds Farrar. “Oto’s tools train your brain to react differently to sound and, gradually, changes in your neural network mean that you hear the ringtone less and less, bringing you to a point of habituation, when someone doesn’t notice at all.”
Connect with others
Wray says “sharing experiences” can help people feel less alone, while opening them up to coping strategies that have really helped others. BTA has “a network of support groups across the country. We also have online support groups, workshops, and webinars that people can tap into,” adds Wray.
“We also have a friendship service, so people can get one-on-one support over the phone or email from someone who also has tinnitus.” For further details see the ‘Support’ tab on the BTA website or call their helpline (0800 018 0527).