Almost everyone has experienced ringing in their ears at one point or another, but when the sound never stops, it can feel like torture.
Millions of tinnitus patients around the world deal with this reality daily. But I want to be very clear: If you are suffering from tinnitus, there is so much hope!
Despite what you’ve seen online or what your doctor might have told you, you can do something about your tinnitus. There may not be a cure, but lasting relief is entirely possible.
Thanks to a mental process called habituation, you can get to a place where your tinnitus stops bothering you entirely, where your brain just stops paying attention to it and it fades from your awareness.
But when you’re suffering, it’s hard to wrap your mind around how something like this could be possible. When faced with the idea of habituation, many tinnitus patients instinctively think, “My tinnitus is too loud—I could never ignore something this horrible.”
So today, instead of diving into the technical aspects of the science of habituation, I want to offer you an easier way to understand what it means to habituate and explain why I believe that it’s not just possible for every tinnitus sufferer, but the best strategy for lasting relief.
There is nothing “broken” about your ears, brain, or nervous system that would ultimately prevent you from tuning out the sounds of tinnitus.
We all have sensory filtering mechanisms in our brain that work automatically, all the time, to filter meaningless sensory information out of our awareness.
Think of all the things you aren’t paying attention to right now: the feeling of your clothes on your skin, everything in your peripheral vision, and the air temperature. Ever walk into a smelly room, only to forget about it a few minutes later? Same process.
We ignore and filter out background noise and sounds this way, too. It’s how people are able to focus and be productive in noisy work environments. It’s also how you can have a conversation in a loud restaurant without being drowned out by the ambient noise of people talking around you.
In a very real sense, your brain can turn down the perceived volume of unimportant noise so you can focus on the sounds that matter.
Tuning out tinnitus is possible
The good news is that we are also fully capable of tuning out the sounds of tinnitus from our conscious awareness. But when you’re suffering, there are several major obstacles that prevent this from happening naturally.
Luckily, you can do something about it. It takes work but you can remove these obstacles and finally find lasting relief from the ringing in your ears.
You can get to a place where your tinnitus stops bothering you entirely, where your brain just tunes it out from your conscious awareness like it does all other meaningless noise, and it stops affecting your quality of life.
Two obstacles in the way
Many tinnitus sufferers mistakenly believe that the sound itself is the root of their problem.
Of course, if the sound was gone tomorrow, their suffering would end. But until there’s a cure, we have to learn to control our thoughts and how we react to the sound emotionally, psychologically, and physiologically.
When you dig a little deeper, you find that there are two specific obstacles that prevent a sufferer’s brain from effectively ignoring or tuning out the sound of their tinnitus, and they’re not at all obvious.
The first obstacle is that we evolved to use sound as a way to monitor our environment for danger and threats. As a result, when we hear the sound that our brain interprets as something dangerous, we experience a fight-or-flight stress response.
This panicky state doesn’t feel very good, but it helps us to confront dangerous situations or get away safely. Almost instantaneously, stress hormones like adrenaline and norepinephrine are released into the bloodstream, allowing us to run faster and hit harder for a short period of time.
Our senses also become heightened and that’s part of the problem: It becomes impossible to ignore any sound that implies danger to your brain. After all, you would never want to miss the sound of something actually dangerous approaching.
Which brings us to the second obstacle: Our brains just cannot tell the difference between real danger and an imagined threat like tinnitus. Public speaking is another good example of this kind of problem. There is nothing physically dangerous about public speaking, but many people still experience fight or flight in front of an audience.
The reason is fear. Our fear makes the danger real to our brain, whether it’s real or not, and so our reaction is the same: We have a stress response.
Vicious cycle of the stress response
Normally, when a dangerous situation is resolved, our parasympathetic nervous system is activated. The opposite of the fight-or-flight response, it’s known as “rest-and-digest.”
But with tinnitus, you can get stuck in a state of fight or flight that never really ends because the sound doesn’t just magically disappear.
With tinnitus, you can get stuck in a state of fight or flight that never really ends because the sound doesn’t just magically disappear.
Unfortunately, it often gets worse, because the brain starts to associate the emotional fall-out of an experience like this—the anxiety, panic, anger, frustration, anguish, depression, and stress—with the sound of your tinnitus.
These negative emotions are snowballed into the reaction, and become are part of the reaction, leaving you with something much worse than a simple fight-or-flight stress response.
Some people do habituate naturally and find their tinnitus bothers them less and less over time, but not everyone. For many sufferers, it just gets more and more difficult, and starts to affect every single aspect of their quality of life.
And as the anxiety, panic, and stress increase, the tinnitus often seems louder and spikes more frequently, which in turn makes sleep difficult, which affects focus and productivity, and so on.
You get trapped in a vicious cycle. But the cycle can be broken.
Habituation: A process of slowly removing the obstacles
To find relief from tinnitus, you must remove the obstacles that prevent habituation from occurring naturally. In simple terms, this means changing the way you react to the sound emotionally, psychologically, and physiologically.
When it stops bothering you, you will stop paying attention to the sound, without conscious effort, more and more of the time, exactly like you do with all other meaningless background noise.
But understanding why habituation is possible is only part of the equation. It also requires an effective strategy, hard work, discipline, and time to see results. And the process itself doesn’t happen all at once.
Habituation is a progression where relief occurs in stages, and it’s not an “every day is better than the day before” kind of experience.
For most people, it’s 3 steps forward, 2 steps back, or even 3 steps back, over and over again. Spikes and difficult days are an unfortunate and unavoidable part of the process.
But you also don’t need to get to the finish line to see improvement. Quality of life improves across the board, at every point of the process.
How I habituated and how you can too
I was personally able to habituate from severe tinnitus (caused by Meniere’s disease) with a somewhat unique, and counterintuitive strategy that involved focusing on my tinnitus during meditation.
Because meditation is such a calming and relaxing mental exercise when practiced regularly, and because anything can be used as the focus of meditation (it doesn’t have to be your breathing or a mantra), my brain started to associate the state of relaxation with the sound of my tinnitus.
As a result, this new reaction slowly replaced the old reaction of fear, anger, and anxiety, and I was able to fully habituate to the sound.
And since launching my blog Rewiring Tinnitus and publishing my book of the same name to share my strategies a few years back, I’ve connected and worked one-on-one with countless sufferers who habituated and improved their quality of life with the same or a similar approach.
But it’s certainly not the only way. There are many other strategies, such as Tinnitus Retraining Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, that can help you to habituate as well.
In my opinion, the best way forward is to pick a strategy, stick to it for a while, and be disciplined in your approach. Because habituation can take time, regardless of how you choose to go about it.
But it’s worth the effort, because the end result is getting your life back, and at the end of the day, that’s what most tinnitus sufferers really want.
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