Stress—we’re all familiar with it. In today’s fast-paced world, it often seems like we thrive on it. Like a hot cup of coffee, it wakes us up and drives us through our days. We complain about it, joke about it, we even devote billion-dollar industries to alleviating it.
But when stress affects our health, it’s no longer a laughing matter. And while most people know that stress can affect our heart and mental health, few realize that stress can cause hearing loss. For millions of stressed-out Americans, tinnitus is a daily and debilitating reality.
Tinnitus and Stress Studies
Tinnitus is when you hear sound—often a ringing, buzzing or whooshing—that has no external source. And while tinnitus has many known causes, studies show that over 50% of tinnitus sufferers report their symptoms first became noticeable during a period of stress, with the highest levels of stress correlating with the most severe tinnitus symptoms.
That means, the more stressed you are, the louder the ringing can become—and the longer it may last.
Stress and Tinnitus: A Vicious Cycle
Unfortunately, stress doesn’t just cause tinnitus. Tinnitus also causes stress. Let’s look at an example.
Meet James. James is on a deadline to develop a big presentation for work—the biggest of his career. Because of this, he’s been spending lots of late nights at the office. One morning, after a particularly late night at work, James wakes up with a faint ringing in his ear. He tries to ignore it, but it doesn’t go away. One week goes by and then two —the ringing’s still there.
Finally, the day of James’ presentation arrives. He stumbles through it because he was so stressed and distracted by the sound of his exacerbated tinnitus symptoms.
Of course, James is an extreme example, but not an uncommon one. Why did it get so out of control? It all has to do with something called the fight-or-flight response.
Stress, Fight-or-Flight and Tinnitus
To understand how stress and tinnitus feed each other, we need to understand exactly what stress is.
Stress is how our body responds to a challenge. That response may be a good thing—stress can help us run a race faster or motivate us to do well on a test. But it can also lead to a more intense reaction. When your brain perceives a threat, the fight-or-flight response is triggered, and your body goes on high alert, heightening your senses and pumping stress hormones into your veins.
That physical response could save your life in the event of a temporary threat, like a fire or a home invasion. But what if the threat never went away? What if your brain thought the threat was still there, long after any danger had passed?
While many people are able to simply ignore tinnitus, others react to it with a fight-or-flight response, leaving them in a constant state of anxiety. That constant stress leads to worsening tinnitus, which leads to more stress, and for some, a self-perpetuating loop of noise.
Break the Cycle
To break the vicious stress-tinnitus cycle, it’s important to take an active role in improving and maintaining your treatment of tinnitus. Tinnitus patients who do often feel more in control of their tinnitus management may see symptoms lessen or even disappear altogether. Here are some things you can do to lower your stress levels:
1. Start with your family doctor. Tell them you are struggling to manage your stress. They’ll offer several solutions to get you on the right track.
2. Find a psychologist or therapist you trust. Talk therapy can do wonders for stress. As you look for a therapist, remember that it’s important to feel chemistry with your therapist—to feel that they listen and understand you. Don’t be afraid to break up with a few until you find the one that’s right for you.
3. See a psychiatrist. Studies show that the best treatment for stress, depression and anxiety often involves a combination of talk therapy and medication. Your psychologist dispenses the advice; your psychiatrist dispenses the medication.
4. Add meditation to your routine. Scientists used to believe that the brain was static—that once it reached adulthood, it couldn’t change. Today, scientists are learning more about the science of neuroplasticity—that is, the idea that through certain activities, the brain can actually change and rewire itself for the better. One of those activities is meditation. To meditate, find a spot in your home without any noise. (If your tinnitus symptoms are distracting you, turn on a fan or soft music.) Then sit wherever is comfortable, breathe, and concentrate on your breath. Only your breath. When a thought appears, good or bad, acknowledge it, let it go, and then return to focusing on your breath. See how long you can go without having an outside thought break your focus. At first, it will only be seconds. Eventually, you’ll be able to do it for much longer stretches of time. For the best results, meditate twice a day for 20 minutes.
5. Exercise more. Exercise releases endorphins and gives you an immediate mood lift. Consider starting an exercise routine that incorporates elements of relaxation and meditation, including yoga, qi gong or tai chi.
6. Improve your diet. Eat a diet rich in vitamins and nutrients, and limit your caffeine intake.
7. Buy a light therapy lamp. Light therapy is a proven technique for tackling symptoms of depression and anxiety, especially during the winter months when we get less sun exposure and our vitamin D levels are low.
8. Consider taking supplements. Many supplements have been shown to help with mood disorders, including omega-3 fish oil, B-complex vitamins, magnesium and calcium, most of which are available at your local pharmacy. Be sure to check with your doctor before you add a supplement to your diet.
9. Include massage therapy, acupuncture and chiropractic care. The human touch has healing properties in almost every application, decreasing the stress hormone cortisol and raising levels of feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine.