Tinnitus describes the phenomenon of hearing a persistent noise in your ears that no one else is aware of. This can be heard as a ringing sound, a ‘whooshing’ noise or a buzz. In any case, the sound can often be distracting and will commonly lead to headaches, frustration and stress.
As it turns out, tinnitus is at least partly caused by stress as well. And as it both causes and leads to stress, this results in something of a vicious cycle. In other words, you are stressed and so you experience tinnitus and this then leads you to be stressed and experience more tinnitus. Oh dear!
How Tinnitus, Stress and Anxiety Are Linked
So why does stress cause tinnitus? There are actually two different types of tinnitus which are known as ‘objective tinnitus’ (where the sound is actually present and can be heard by a physician) and ‘subjective tinnitus’ (where only the patient can hear the sound).
Often objective tinnitus is caused by high blood pressure and tension in the muscles. This can then cause ‘popping noises’ as the muscles cause air to travel through the ears, it can lead the patient to hear their own pulse and it can cause a whooshing sound of blood. When you become stressed, your muscles tense and your blood pressure increases – and as a result this can exacerbate many of those sounds described.
Subjective tinnitus meanwhile is usually caused by the firing of the auditory nerves. Thus it is not ‘all in the patient’s head’ – rather their brain is registering sound when there in fact isn’t any.
This is something that you can experience for yourself. If you’ve ever been punched in the ear, then you might remember hearing a ringing noise afterwards. This is actually the result of your auditory nerves being excited by the impact!
Another time you might notice a ringing sound in your ears is when you’re in complete silence. In these circumstances you can end up almost ‘searching’ for some kind of sound in order to fill the void and thus you start to register false positives. This is the same reason you see shapes dancing in-front of your eyes when you close them.
When you are highly stressed, chemical changes in the brain increase your sensitivity and your receptiveness to the point where you can actually start to get these same ‘false positives’ even when you aren’t actively listening out for them. Likewise, sounds that are there will also sound louder.
Finally, when you are stressed you will become more likely to focus on the thing that is making you stressed. This is why tinnitus stress is such a big problem – it forces you to concentrate on the noise that is making you feel stressed in the first place and this in turn makes that noise sound louder and more painful.
How to Combat Tinnitus Stress
With that in mind then, how do you go about combating tinnitus stress and turning it into less of an issue? There are a few things you can do. One is to simply practice not focusing on the sound and trying not to be bothered by it. A cognitive behavioral therapist is a specialist who can help you with this process.
Another useful tool is sound therapy, which involves using a sound that’s the same pitch as the tinnitus you’re hearing in order to mask the sound. This works well because it means you are no longer focusing on the false positives but instead focusing on the sound that is actually there.
Sound therapy and CBT can also be combined in order to treat tinnitus stress with what is known as ‘tinnitus retraining therapy’. Here you gradually learn to ignore the noise caused by tinnitus and to let it sink into the ‘background’ much like you don’t hear the repetitive sound of a ticking clock after a while.
Often tinnitus is the result of hearing loss in which case treating the hearing can often indirectly help with the tinnitus stress.
Finally, you can also treat tinnitus stress by treating stress generally. This might involve making lifestyle changes, learning better coping strategies (like breathing techniques) or seeing a therapist.