Have you ever tried to fall asleep and suddenly realized there was a mosquito in your room? After all the noises of a long day, you flip off the lights, your head hits the pillow, and you start to drift off into a peaceful slumber. But suddenly you hear it.
It’s faint, but it is unmistakable. You try to ignore it. You roll over. You wrap the pillow over your ears. You pray it gets tired and settles into a corner. But the pesky invader is relentless, and you have no choice but to get out of bed and find a solution if you ever want to get some rest.
Use that mosquito scenario as an accurate description of life with tinnitus and insomnia.
What Is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is when you hear sound that doesn’t have an external source. Tinnitus is not a disease in itself, but rather a symptom of something else going on in your body like hearing loss due to damage to the inner ear, stress or a side effect from medication. Patients usually experience tinnitus as a persistent, high-pitched ringing in the ears, but it can also be a buzzing, humming, roaring, shrieking or the sound of your own heartbeat. Tinnitus symptoms can be low-pitched or high-pitched, the volume can vary and patients can experience it in one or both ears. Usually, the quieter the environment, the louder tinnitus feels. This is why many tinnitus sufferers experience the severity of their symptoms at night as they try to fall asleep.
What Is Tinnitus-Induced Insomnia?
The simple definition for tinnitus-induced insomnia is the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep because of tinnitus and its side effects. However, it’s a much more complicated and self-perpetuating condition than most people realize. That’s because it’s not the noise of tinnitus that causes a sleep disturbance.
You see, many people with tinnitus sleep quite well. They even see sleep as a refreshing escape from the noise. And those who do sleep well don’t have tinnitus symptoms that differ from those who struggle to get rest. However, those who do experience tinnitus-induced insomnia have one significant difference: they worry.
Tinnitus patients who sleep poorly worry more at night than patients who sleep well. They worry about the quantity of sleep they are getting, the effects of not sleeping or about their tinnitus symptoms in general. That worry often translates to relentless, looping anxiety. It has more of an impact on sleep problems than the actual tinnitus sounds.
How does this happen? In your quiet bedroom, you may become more aware of your tinnitus. This can lead to unhelpful thoughts, like, “I’ll never be able to sleep,” or, “If I can fall asleep now, I’ll still get five hours of sleep by the time I have to wake up.” This creates stress arousal in your body which then leads to poor sleep. In turn, that poor sleep can increase your anxiety throughout the day, keeping you awake even longer at night and trapped in the vicious cycle of sleeplessness, worry and awareness of your tinnitus.
How to Break the Tinnitus-Induced Insomnia Cycle
If you suffer from tinnitus-induced insomnia, there are several treatment options you can do to increase the quality of your sleep, including:
- Try masking: masking is using noise to cover up the sounds of tinnitus. Many tinnitus patients sleep well by turning on a fan, radio or television for background noise. Others find relief with white noise machines or tinnitus treatment specific apps on their smartphones. Experiment with what works best for you.
- Talk to your doctor: your doctor will offer you suggestions and options for getting more sleep, and they may write you a prescription for medication. Although medication is not a long-term solution for insomnia, it can help disrupt your anxiety so you can get some rest and then focus on developing a better sleep routine. Be careful to work closely with your doctor when you take sleep or anti-anxiety medications, as they can become habit-forming or exacerbate existing symptoms. If you prefer a more mild alternative to prescription medications, ask your doctor if melatonin is an option for you.
- Don’t use alcohol: it may get you to sleep, but it will also disrupt your normal sleep pattern. You may wake up sooner and have even more difficulty getting back to sleep.
- Limit your caffeine intake and quit smoking: coffee, soda, tea, energy drinks and nicotine are stimulants that can keep you awake.
- Eat a balanced diet and exercise: as science has shown us over and over again, healthy people sleep better. As an added bonus, try incorporating exercise with relaxation components into your day, like yoga or tai chi.
- Put away electronic devices: for at least an hour before bed, don’t watch television or use your computer, smartphone or tablet. These devices emit blue light that can seriously disrupt the production of the helpful hormones your body uses to fall asleep.
- Relax and journal before bed: placing your thoughts on paper can often calm your mind and free it up to think about other things. Spend 15-20 quiet minutes before bed writing down your worries and concerns, and resolve to deal with them later.
- Wait to go to bed until you feel sleepy: don’t go to bed just because it’s a certain time of the night.
- Use the bedroom for sleep, sex and relaxation only: don’t watch movies or bring work to bed. These things stimulate your mind, and a busy mind will keep you awake.
- If you are not asleep in 30 minutes, get up and go to another room: do something relaxing, like reading, and then go back to bed when you feel sleepy. Repeat the process if you are not asleep in another 30 minutes.
- Get up at the same time every day, even on weekends: as tempting as it can be, avoid sleeping in. This will help you to keep your body clock on its optimum sleep cycle.