“What is that noise?” I asked my family one quiet Sunday afternoon. They all looked around squinting as if that would help them hear it, but there was no sound. “It must be my tinnitus again,” I sighed. It was starting to be a real nuisance.
Tinnitus, that pesky ringing in your ears, harasses more than 45 million Americans, according to the American Tinnitus Association, with nearly 20 million of them bothered on a regular basis.
The unique experience of tinnitus
Tinnitus can impact anyone, but a 2010 article in The Journal of Medicine indicates it is most common in males, older adults, and former smokers. None of these categories apply to me, but I have struggled with tinnitus for over 20 years. There is currently no cure.
The word tinnitus is derived from the Latin word tinnire, which means “to ring,” but it can take on other sounds as well. Some describe it as a buzzing or a humming. Others as a sizzling or a hissing. For me, it is most often an electrical hum — like the sound of a fluorescent light coming on — followed by a steady high-pitched tone. This can last for several minutes.
Separately, I have a constant soft ringing sound in my head, but I only become aware of it in the absence of other background noise, like in my quiet bedroom at night when I am trying to sleep. At its worst, my tinnitus disrupts my ability to concentrate, to communicate effectively and to sleep. The cause remains a mystery, but it likely has something to do with my hearing loss.
Meditation in coping with tinnitus
The only way I have found sustained relief from tinnitus is through daily meditation, which I discovered almost by accident. I regularly practice yoga, but had never tried meditation in any meaningful way, until I attended a yoga retreat a couple years ago. Intermixed with the yoga classes were afternoon tutorials on meditation.
At the first session, we sat in the meditation hall while the leader explained what to do. Since it was quiet, my background ring was ever present, but I ignored it, concentrating fiercely on the speaker’s voice. The meditation practice he described was simple — sit with a comfortable and upright posture and relax. Breathe in and out and try to clear your mind of any thoughts.
There were only three rules:
1. Don’t move: This is as simple as it sounds. Stillness tells your body that all is well.
2. Don’t scratch: If you notice a distraction, acknowledge the discomfort, but sit with it for a little bit. Often, the uncomfortable feeling subsides on its own.
3. Don’t engage with your thoughts: This one is the toughest. Try to clear your mind. If thoughts emerge, notice them, but don’t interact with them. For me, counting my breaths in and out often keeps my mind “busy” so it can rest. If you do find your mind wandering, simply return to counting. Remember, it is normal to think so don’t beat yourself up about it. Noticing your thoughts and working to clear your mind again is a normal part of the meditation process.
Meditation sounded easy, but of course the minute I started, I immediately felt an incredible urge to shift in my seat, blow my noise, and clear my throat — all at the same time. After a few sessions, it was easier to relax into the stillness. My body seemed to thank me for it.
During the meditation sessions, the ringing in my ears would subside. Despite the silence of the meditation room, the roar of my tinnitus would fade away. This occurred subtly at first, but by the end of the week, my body seemed to anticipate what was to come. I would assume the meditation posture, begin to mindfully breathe, and the quiet would come, as welcome as a gift.
When I returned home, I maintained my meditation practice, and the silence stayed with me. Even my debilitating fluorescent light outbreaks are much fewer and farther between.
Do you have tinnitus? Why not give meditation a try? The only thing you have to lose is the unwanted sound.
Editor’s note: Tinnitus and hearing loss often go hand in hand. If you have ringing in your ears, it may be time to get a hearing test. Visit our directory of hearing clinics near you and schedule an appointment today!