By Glenn Schweitzer
For as long as I can remember, silence had a sound.
When I was a kid, I thought everyone could hear the soft, high-pitched tone that I could hear when it was quiet. It wasn’t a bad sound; it was just normal.
Seven years ago, I was diagnosed with an incurable inner ear disorder called Ménière’s disease, and suddenly the quiet tone that never bothered me became the sound of sirens blasting in my ears.
When you live with tinnitus, the medical term for ringing in the ears, the sound never stops and can turn your life into a living nightmare.
Today, I’m happy to report that my tinnitus doesn’t bother me at all. Several years back, I stumbled onto a simple exercise that radically altered the way I react to the sound.
And it changed everything.
A Massive Problem
Despite a lack of public awareness, tinnitus is actually an extremely prevalent health problem. By most estimates, it affects 10-15% of the general population. That’s nearly 50 million people in the US alone and close to 600 million sufferers worldwide. It’s also the leading cause of disability among veterans, outranking even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Many people do learn to live with it, and often find that it bothers them less and less over time. But for the people who are tortured by tinnitus, they’re lucky if they even learn about treatment options. Far too many people are told they just have to “live with it” and that’s unacceptable to me, because there is hope for everyone.
I’ve come to believe that when you have tinnitus, the only question that really matters is: “Does it bother you?”
Because if it does, you can do something about it. It’s the one thing that you actually have the power to change.
The human brain is incredibly good at filtering out meaningless background noise from our conscious awareness through a mental process called habituation. It’s how we’re able to carry on conversations in crowded rooms.
Habituation is also the answer to tinnitus. But there’s a problem. It’s simply impossible to tune out a sound that implies a threat or carries a negative association of any kind, both of which apply to tinnitus.
We use sound to monitor our environment for threats, and you never want to miss the sound of something dangerous. Unfortunately, our brains can’t tell the difference between a perceived threat like tinnitus and real danger, so our emotional reaction is the same. We end up in a perpetual low-level state of fight-or-flight, a stress response that doesn’t end because the ringing never stops. The result is a vicious cycle of frustration, pain, and emotional turmoil.
But the one thing that we actually can change is the very thing that prevents us from habituating and finding relief: our emotional response.
I admit I say this all in hindsight. I didn’t habituate intentionally, not at first. I stumbled on to it completely by accident as I struggled to meditate.
Meditation helped me to cope with Ménière’s disease, but as my tinnitus grew worse, my meditation practice started to suffer. It became more and more difficult to focus on my breath with the shrieking in my ears.
But one evening, lying in bed, unsuccessfully trying to ignore the noise and meditate, I had an idea. If meditation involved focusing my attention onto a single point of awareness, like my breathing, what would happen if I focused on my tinnitus instead?
It felt like a bad idea but I gave it a shot.
The first breakthrough happened almost immediately.
When you meditate, your mind tends to wander. It happens to everyone, especially people new to meditation, but it doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. Catching yourself when your mind wanders and bringing your focus back, starting over, is the actual exercise.
But this time, when my mind wandered, it wandered away from the sound. For that brief moment, my tinnitus hadn’t bothered me at all. It was profound.
As I continued to meditate, focusing on the sound, I started to feel very relaxed. When I stopped fighting to ignore my tinnitus, I was suddenly able to meditate much more deeply.
And most surprising of all, when I finished, my tinnitus seemed quieter, although in reality it just wasn’t bothering me as much. I couldn’t believe it.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but my brain was starting to associate the deep relaxation of meditation with the sound of my tinnitus and it was my first real taste of relief.
Over the following weeks, I continued to practice the technique and I was able to fully habituate.
After suffering for so long, I felt like I had discovered some kind of weird super power. I was doing so much better; my stress levels dropped and my tinnitus stopped bothering me entirely.
There may not be a cure for tinnitus, but there is hope for today if we change our reaction to the sound and habituate.
It may not go away, or even become quieter, but we can get to a place where it stops bothering us. At the end of the day, that’s just as good. Because when it stops bothering us, we stop reacting and start to tune it out naturally.
We can improve our quality of life and that’s what matters most.