For as long as I can remember, silence was a high-pitched tone.
Growing up, I had no idea that other people couldn’t hear what I could hear when it was quiet. I just assumed it was normal.
But in 2011, I was diagnosed with a rare, incurable inner ear disorder called Meniere’s disease, and the quiet tone that never bothered me became a fire alarm blaring in my ears.
For me, and for the millions of people around the world who live with tinnitus, the medical term for ringing in the ears, the sound never stops and can drive you completely crazy.
Day and night, I was tormented by the sound. But today, my tinnitus no longer bothers me at all.
A simple exercise radically altered my reaction to the noise. It changed everything.
An invisible epidemic
Technically speaking, tinnitus isn’t actually a condition itself; it’s a symptom caused by one of many different underlying conditions.
Just to give you an idea, hearing loss, head and neck injury, temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), traumatic brain injury, infection, vestibular disorders like Meniere’s disease, acoustic neuromas and circulatory system disorders are all known to cause tinnitus. Certain vitamins, supplements and medications can too.
It’s far more prevalent than most people realize.
By most estimates, tinnitus affects nearly 50 million people in the US alone and more than 600 million worldwide. That’s roughly 10-15 percent of the population, yet most people have never heard of it.
It’s an epidemic with no public awareness, one that leaves its victims with little support and even fewer options.
There’s no cure for tinnitus, but that doesn’t mean we’re powerless.
Some people naturally cope better than others and find that it bothers them less and less over time. But for everyone else, they’re lucky if they even learn that treatment is an option. Way too many sufferers are told they just have to “live with it,” and that’s unacceptable to me because there is hope for everyone.
We can learn to live in harmony with the sound.
In my opinion, the most important question 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.
Tuning out tinnitus
The real issue with tinnitus is the way we react to the sound emotionally, physically and psychologically.
Our brains are fully capable of filtering out repetitive stimuli, like sound, from our conscious awareness with a mental process known as habituation. It’s how we’re able to focus in noisy places and why we don’t constantly feel our clothing against our skin.
It’s also the key to tinnitus. But unfortunately, it’s simply impossible to ignore a sound that our brains interpret as threatening or dangerous.
We’re evolutionarily hardwired to react to noises that imply threats, and we would never want to miss the sound of something actually dangerous.
The problem is that our brains can’t tell the difference between an imagined threat like tinnitus and real danger, so our emotional reaction is the same. We have a stress response, and it never ends because our tinnitus doesn’t just go away, leaving us in a vicious cycle of frustration and emotional pain.
But we can defuse the entire situation by changing the way we react to the sound.
As a result, it becomes less bothersome, and we can start to tune it out naturally.
Habituation by mistake
When I was first diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, I used meditation to help me cope with the unbelievable amount of stress I was experiencing at the time.
It worked well, too. But, it became increasingly difficult to focus on my breath with the sound of alarms blasting in my ears. My tinnitus was the one symptom that I hadn’t been able to improve.
Yet lying in bed one night, struggling to meditate, I suddenly had an idea.
If meditation was the practice of focusing my attention onto a single point of awareness, like my breathing, what would happen if I stopped fighting to ignore my tinnitus, and focused on the ringing instead?
It seemed crazy, but I tried it anyway. What happened next was undeniable.
A flash of hope
Almost immediately, my mind started to wander. This happens to everyone, especially new meditators. Bringing your focus back, starting over, is the point of meditation, not some problem to overcome.
But this time, my mind wandered away from the sound. The realization hit me like a freight train. For that brief moment, I hadn’t noticed my tinnitus at all. I was elated.
Even more surprising, however, was when I finished meditating, my tinnitus didn’t seem as loud. It wasn’t actually quieter, it just wasn’t bothering me as much, so it seemed quieter.
My brain was beginning to associate the intense calm of meditation with the sound of my tinnitus.
But at the time, all I knew was it was working. After suffering for so long, it felt like magic.
It was my first real experience of relief.
After this initial success, I continued to practice tinnitus-focused meditation at every opportunity.
I improved so much, so quickly. My stress levels dropped, I was getting better sleep, and my tinnitus was bothering me less and less. I was able to fully habituate over the following few weeks.
There may not be a cure for tinnitus, but there is hope for today, because we can change the way we react to the sound and habituate.
It may not go away, or even necessarily become quieter, but we can get to a place where it stops bothering us and dramatically improve our quality of life.
At the end of the day, that’s what matters most.
Want to learn more?
Tackling Tinnitus: Read more of Glenn Schweitzer’s columns
Also, I recently published a book about my journey called Rewiring Tinnitus: How I Finally Found Relief From the Ringing in My Ears. It’s jam-packed full of tools, techniques, strategies, meditations and so much more.