‘I have a stressful job as a primary school head teacher and the less sleep I got, the worse I felt,’ he says. ‘I was taking sleeping pills, becoming short tempered, moody and struggling to cope with the pressures of work. I started to feel that it was ruining my life. After a year or so, it got even worse the high pitched whistle changed into a sound I can only describe as being like Morse code, a permanent bleeping noise that I could hear all the time. It was horrific.’
But thanks to a new form of treatment, John’s life is no longer dominated by the noises in his ear. Called mindful meditation, it works by training the brain to come to terms with the tinnitus, unlike other techniques that teach it to avoid the problem.
The technique is already effectively used to treat anxiety and depression. Its use for tinnitus is based on scans that show when the brain tries to shut out the relentless humming, this causes increased brainwave activity.
In other words, the more the brain tries to fight the problem, the more it ‘tunes into’ it.
The meditation technique, however, teaches patients to regularly stop and confront their thoughts and worries about the noise and this appears to have the opposite effect.
It seems the brain gradually comes to terms with the tinnitus and stops focusing on it so much. By ‘detuning’ in this way, the patient begins to notice the problem less and less.
Psychologists and hearing specialists pioneering the therapy insist that it’s not a cure for the underlying nerve damage in the inner ear that is responsible for tinnitus.
This damage which can be caused by a cold, an ear infection or exposure to loud music triggers an abnormal stream of impulses the brain interprets as constant sound.
But there is evidence that the new therapy may, over time, lead to changes in brain function that mean the patient eventually doesn’t notice the tinnitus.
Many of us suffer temporary tinnitus that lasts no more than a few hours, often from a cold or from going to a loud concert. But for around one in 100 people, it becomes a longterm affliction.
Treatments include counselling, relaxation techniques to ease the stress that can make it worse and sound therapy, where patients listen to background noise, such as gentle music, waves crashing on a shore or even the hum of traffic, to distract them from the tinnitus.
But while most of these treatments depend on distracting the brain from the problem, some experts believe therapies that confront the problem may be more effective.
Mindful meditation is one of these techniques. It’s similar to traditional forms of meditation, in that the technique involves relaxation, deep breathing and focusing on the rise and fall of the chest and stomach.
But instead of ’emptying’ the mind, patients are taught to actually ‘observe’ their thoughts, including their worries about tinnitus.
Our brains are constantly evaluating noise in order to work out which sounds are significant, or threatening, and which ones can be ignored.
When the brain is under stress, it is more likely to evaluate unimportant sounds as threatening. But by learning to accept that it’s natural to have troublesome thoughts about the condition, the theory is that the brain learns, in turn, that there’s no need to perceive these sounds as threatening.
In short, it is being ‘reconditioned’ to accept tinnitus as normal.
‘Our aim is to help people acknowledge that they have the condition, that it won’t cause them to lose their hearing and that what they can hear is actually harmless neuronal activity in the pathway from the ear to the brain,’ says Jo Blaquiere, hearing therapist at the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital in London, which has pioneered use of the therapy over the past two years.
‘It’s not for everyone,’ she adds. ‘But some people find it a powerful technique for coping.
‘It’s different to relaxation therapy because the goal is not to relax. With mindful meditation you learn to accept how things are as best you can.’
Professor Laurence McKenna, consultant in clinical psychology at the hospital, says the technique appears to help sufferers combat fears that tinnitus will ruin their lives.
‘Some people worry that they’ll never experience peace and quiet again and, as a result, will slowly go mad. These are the kind of thoughts that keep people focused on the tinnitus.
‘We can’t be sure how mindful meditation alters the brain, but there is evidence of changes in the way the brain functions.’
For instance, some studies suggest it leads to an increase in activity in the pre frontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with positive emotion.
John was initially sceptical that consciously thinking about the tinnitus could actually make it go away. But having failed to respond to other therapies, including relaxation techniques, he persisted, meditating for 20 minutes a day.
This involved finding a quiet place, doing some deep breathing and gradually counting down from 500.
‘Then when I did start to think about my tinnitus, I was able to tell myself that it was just a part of me, that it was not taking over my life and that I could move forward one day at a time.’
‘Admittedly, for a long time nothing seemed to happen and I even thought about giving up/ But because I was desperate, I persisted. And I’m glad I did.
‘After a few months I realised I was not hearing the Morse code sound in my right ear as much as before,’ says John, who is married to Linda, 53, also a primary school head teacher.
Hearing Loss, Depression Link Discovered By New Study
A new study suggests that there is a link between hearing loss and depression when left untreated.
According to the study, conducted by the National Council on Aging and presented at the American Psychological Association’s annual conference in Toronto, hearing loss sufferers are 50 percent more likely to experience depression and anxiety, the Morning Ticker reports.
National Center for Health Sciences said that people tend to wait six years from the onset of hearing loss to seek appropriate treatments, according to Psych Central. David Myers, Ph.D., a psychology professor and textbook writer at Hope College in Michigan, explained that adults experiencing hearing loss between the ages of 20 and 69 are half as likely as adults 70 years and older to use hearing aids, and only 20 percent of patients diagnosed with hearing loss actually use a hearing aid.
“Many hard of hearing people battle silently with their invisible hearing difficulties, straining to stay connected to the world around them, reluctant to seek help,” Myers said, noting that he also deals with the loss of his hearing, and didn’t start using hearing aids until he was 40.
The study, which included 2,304 people, showed that people who use hearing aids were more likely to participate in social activities on a regular basis than those who suffer without treatment.
“Anger, frustration, depression, and anxiety are all common among people who find themselves hard of hearing,” Myers continued. “Getting people to use the latest in hearing aid technology can help them regain control of their life, and achieve emotional stability and even better cognitive functioning.”
Myers, who cited another study published in the Archives of Neurology, said that hearing loss has also been connected with an increased risk in developing dementia. The sensory loss leaves people more susceptible to memory loss, according to Myers.
‘Now I hardly hear it at all. But whenever I get stressed I spend a few minutes doing the meditation to prevent it returning.
‘This treatment has given me back my life and I feel deeply indebted to Jo and her team.’
Mindful meditation for tinnitus is not yet widely available on the NHS but some hospital audiology departments may take referrals from a patient’s GP.