Have you ever left a concert or a club with ringing in your ears?
That’s tinnitus. For most people it goes away by the next day.
Lucky for me I’ve had it every moment of my life for the past 25 years. I’ve experienced all of the following symptoms as a result.
- Inability to sleep without waking up numerous times each night.
- Noise intolerance.
- Extreme irritability.
- Consistent muscular tension and pain.
- Bouts of depression.
- Experiencing “tinnitus distress” and feelings of isolation and despair.
Tinnitus has long been associated with over-exposure to loud noise, but is also common in older people and occurs frequently with PTSD.
The rather annoying aspect, besides the ceaseless noise, is that there is no “real” ringing in the ears. The brain interprets something as ringing, so you hear ringing. But there is no real external ringing noise to hear.
It’s the ultimate koan: in the same way that you are the thinker of a thought and the recipient of the thought, you are both the source of the ring and the hearer of the ring.
My Daily Tinnitus Symptoms
The symptoms I experience most frequently are noise intolerance, inability to stay asleep at night, and bodily tension.
Loud noise agitates me. Especially motorcycles with altered mufflers that make them louder.
I hate them with a passion.
Extremely loud music bothers me, too.
This is not an optimal situation considering the fact that I teach salsa and am thus exposed to music on a regular basis. At least in my studio I have control over how loud the music is, although the owner and I are like an old married couple in this regard. He turns it up, I turn it down. I tell him he has experienced hearing loss, but he can’t hear me.
It Influences Your Behavior
When you have an intolerance to loud music, you try to get as far away from the music as possible. I’m often found at salsa events standing apart from the crowd, generally near entrances and exits.
Often people think I’m being anti-social or don’t want to dance. Sometimes I don’t want to dance, that is true, but I’m not being anti-social. I just can’t be too close to the speakers, and since most people hang out closer to the the music, I find myself standing alone.
Along with the symptoms listed above is an underlying central nervous system that can’t relax. It’s a body that is in a perpetual state of sympathetic nervous tone. You are constantly aroused and vigilant.
They sympathetic nervous system is your “fight or flight” response. It is your body’s response to physical, environmental, and emotional stress.
It’s job is to get you out of danger.
It mobilizes energy quickly, sharpens your senses and increases your heart rate. It shunts blood flow away from the middle of your body and out to the peripheral muscles.
While the sympathetic nervous system is necessary for survival, it needs to shut down when you aren’t in danger so you can return to a resting state.
Tinnitus could be the result of an overly aroused sympathetic nervous system or could be what is causing my overly aroused sympathetic nervous system. Or it’s both at the same time (that’s my guess).
It’s impossible to know.
Either way, the inability to “shut down” can be highly detrimental for health and sanity.
How To Deal With It
While there is nothing that has been shown to cure tinnitus, I have had a little bit of success in managing it.
Avoid excessive noise.
There is a huge discrepancy between what the normal person thinks is loud music and what audiologists tells us is too loud and will lead to hearing loss. While some exposure to loud music is inevitable in my line of work, I do have some choices.
Mainly, I avoid excessively loud environments. I don’t go to clubs, which is fine because I don’t like them anyway. If I don’t know about a place, I look it up on Yelp. Any time a review mentions that a place is loud, I know it will be too loud for me.
I don’t hear silence. I just hear the ringing. There is no such thing as peace and quiet in my life. So I always have music on in the background when I’m reading and writing.
I sleep with both a fan and a white noise app on. I live on busy street, so the fan/AC helps drown out the traffic, and the white noise app has a “crickets on a summer evening” sound that closely matches the sound in my brain. So the crickets mask the ringing pretty well.
While this has helped me fall asleep at night, I still have the inability to stay asleep due to my over-aroused sympathetic nervous system.
Meditation and anxiety reduction
Since there is no cure for tinnitus, the only choice is to develop a better relationship with it.
Before last year I always had an aversive attitude towards it. I hated the sound. I hated that I had it. I hated its effects on me. But then I realized by hating tinnitus, I was actually hating myself, because I am the source of the sound.
Self-hate does no good.
At that point, a curious thing happened. The ringing stopped getting worse after our weekly Wednesday salsa nights at a local bar. Usually the ringing was louder after leaving the establishment, but that ceased being the case.
It turns out that the hatred I had for it, and the anxiety that I felt about the prospect of the ringing being louder after an evening out, was actually making it worse.
This idea piggy backs on previous posts when I have written about how getting anxiety about feeling something you don’t want to feel makes the whole experience worse.
Instead of hating some aspect of yourself, you need to make peace with it. Treat it kindly. Pain and discomfort is part of normal human life, but suffering is man-made. Suffering is caused by our inability to relate to our pain without aversion.
Unfortunately, I doubt I’ll ever rid myself of tinnitus. And the prospect of never hearing silence again is depressing, but this is something I’ve dealt with for 25 years. That’s the hand I’ve been dealt.
Importantly, I can’t hate the tinnitus. If I hate on the tinnitus, then I am hating myself, because it is my own brain that is doing it.
It’s part of me.
It’s me, and I am it.