By: Denise Foley
I blame the Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia may be gone, but the buzzing in my ears that first materialized during a Dead concert in the 1980s lives on. Well, some of the time.
I have tinnitus, which is a ringing, hissing, roaring, clicking, whistling and chirping in the ears that can range from subtle to mind-blowing. It’s estimated that 250 million people worldwide hear a sound no one else hears. That’s because it comes from somewhere in their heads -- not the environment around them.
It’s not a disease, says the American Tinnitus Association, but a signal that something is wrong inside you. No one really knows exactly where. But research does suggest why tinnitus can be so emotionally upsetting: It involves the limbic system -- your brain’s emotional center, which interprets any constant loud noise as something dangerous.
Although the damage to my ears may have started at the Dead concert, my tinnitus was mild until I had a bout of Lyme disease a few years ago. Then, the sound in my left ear became disconcertingly louder, possibly as the result of the huge dose of antibiotics I was taking. (A very long list of drugs can cause tinnitus.) It also became a source of anxiety. This kind of constant buzzing can keep you up, make you avoid quiet rooms (ambient noise masks it), and make you about as able to concentrate as a mom with a colicky infant. It can drive you crazy. Some people commit suicide because of it.
A New Way to Silence the Noise
If you have tinnitus, your mind may not only be telling you that you’re in danger, but also mobilizing its resources -- raising your heart rate and your blood pressure, flooding your body with energizing stress hormones, tensing your muscles to fight or flee. That’s the traditional stress response to, say, coming home early to find a burglar ransacking your bedroom or being in the pedestrian crosswalk when a truck careens around the corner at breakneck speed. When those things happen, that reaction is a good thing: It gives you the oomph to get out -- or get out of the way. Phantom noise in your head? Not so much.
And that’s why a new study from the Netherlands gave me new hope. Scientists at Maastricht University introduced almost 500 tinnitus patients to cognitive therapy. Cognitive therapy is based on one fundamental principle: External things, such as people and situations, don’t cause our feelings and behaviors; it’s how we think about those external things that can make us happy or miserable.
With cognitive therapy, you learn to replace old thoughts (“Buzzing noise -- scary!”) with new thoughts (“It’s just a noise”), which takes fear and anxiety out of the equation. If the noise stops bothering you, sometimes -- as I’ve learned -- you just don’t notice it anymore because you no longer pay attention to it. Then your stress response shuts down, and all is well.
The Dutch researchers combined this valuable psychological tool with the other tricks in the tinnitus playbook, including something called tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT), which I used when tinnitus was the soundtrack of my life. TRT uses counseling and an external masking sound that induces habituation, desensitizing you to the noise in your head.
The Dutch researchers went innovative with TRT too, using the actual noise of the tinnitus as the external masking sound to desensitize sufferers. Says researcher Rilana Cima of Maastricht University: “The more people expose themselves instead of avoiding the tinnitus sound, the faster they get used to it.”
They also introduced the tinnitus sufferers to relaxation techniques and some mindfulness skills -- that is, learning to be in the moment, every moment, in a relaxed state, so that you’re no longer anxious about a noisy future.
I suspect, because of my own experience, that this new tinnitus treatment will be highly effective. I finally found a solution when I took a six-week class in mindfulness meditation as part my research for a magazine article I was writing. Meditation, which can be rough for many tinnitus sufferers because the silence makes the sound seem louder, helped me turn off the fear, and I learned to ignore the ringing. When people ask me how I cope with tinnitus, I always tell them what I learned: “When you stop listening, you stop hearing.”
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Denise Foley is Completely You’s “News You Can Use” blogger. She is a veteran health writer, the former deputy editor and editor at large of Prevention, and co-author of four books on women’s health and parenting.
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