How Can Stress Affect The Ear Ringing

All of us experience a ringing in the ears at some time or other in our lives. Some people, unfortunately, are afflicted with a constant sound in their head which has no external origination source. For many of these people, it is a ringing sound, but it may also be experienced as a whistle, chirp, buzz, hum, hiss, roar or even a type of shriek.  Whether the sound comes in one or both ears, seems to come from within the head or from an outside distance, it may be experienced as a steady, constant noise or an intermittent or pulsating one. This sound, or the condition of experiencing the reception of it in the auditory canal, is known as tinnitus.

Frustrated young woman holding her earsTinnitus is experienced by almost everyone for a brief period after exposure to an extremely loud noise (gunfire, a rock concert, being near a fireworks display, proximity to a fire or police siren or some other loud alarm). This form of the condition is situational and short-lived.  Chronic tinnitus is a more serious problem.  It is also fairly widespread, affecting approximately 55 million men and women in the United States alone.  When a person begins to experience it, he or she may fear it is a sign of a serious illness or of beginning to losing the ability to hear. That is rarely the case.

As it develops, however, its course is unpredictable. It may retain the same symptoms with which it begins or it may worsen. There is no cure for it, but many times the patient comes to manage it and notice it less over times.

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Only in approximately ten percent of cases does the condition become severe enough to interfere with the patient’s quality of life to the point that medical help and psychotherapy is needed. Most tinnitus is a subjective noise. This means that the only person who hears the noise is the patient, because it does not come from an external source but from the person’s own auditory canal structure.  People who do seek medical help for tinnitus always experience it as constant and subjective, and most have a certain degree of hearing loss associated with their condition.  Tinnitus may also be a symptom of a disorder of the inner ear’s balance mechanism that is called Ménière’s disease.

The same things that may cause hearing loss also cause tinnitus: exposure to loud noise, medications (ototoxic drugs), impactions of earwax, infections of the middle ear, damaged ear drums, and aging. When sound waves travel through the ear canal into the cochlea, the hair cells there aid the transformation of these waves into electrical signals which travel on the auditory nerve to the auditory cortex within the brain, where the sound/electrical signal is “heard”, or decoded.  When the necessary hair cells are damaged, the signal is distorted and the brain does not receive what it was expecting. The neurons then generate some abnormal activity which produces the illusion of sounds, or the condition of tinnitus.

Tinnitus is not a physical disease or illness. It is a symptom of a fault in the human auditory system. As such, it follows that it does not have to affect a patient’s quality of life if he or she takes step to manage the condition and avoid paying a lot of attention to the noise. In actual fact, this is easier said than done. It is commonly understood that the severity of a person’s tinnitus increases with fatigue and stress. It is also documented that trauma and stress actually trigger increases in tinnitus and actually initiate its inception. This leads to a vicious cycle as stress influences a person’s tinnitus which in turn influences the person’s stress level.

Tinnitus Stress affects some patients’ abilities to cope with everyday life and is severely debilitating.  These people may experience:
• Sleep problems
• Depression
• Frequent mood swings
• Anxiety attacks
• Tension and irritability
• Frustration and poor concentration
• Extreme distress (this is common)
The key to learning to manage the stress caused by tinnitus is to target the part of the brain that is triggering the stress response to it. Just as the damaged auditory system creates the tinnitus response, it the brain’s emotional center, the limbic system, that must be targeted to control the stress response to the tinnitus.

People who are extremely stressed when they experience their tinnitus tend to view their situation as hopeless, desire nothing more than peace and quiet, resent the condition’s disruption and persistence, and feel persecuted. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) has been the most effective means of therapy for allowing these people to become “habituated” to it and learn to give it less attention and focus on other things instead. CBT provides the tools and redirection techniques necessary to make the lifestyle changes and thought pattern changes to positively affect their condition. Such therapy is usually for from two to six months and the results are that the patient’s quality of life does improve.

Using relaxation techniques to control how stress affects the tinnitus in one’s ears also involves developing techniques to avoid stressful situations, view the noise positively and use more pleasant noises (music, books on tape) as distraction, practice breathing exercises, participate in fun activities, socialize, exercise, talk to supportive people, and making relaxing time for one’s self.  When people with tinnitus become habituated to it, they reduce their unpleasant feelings, thereby reducing their stress. Then they can use relaxation to deal with the physical reaction their limbic impulses signal to reduce the stress of tinnitus.

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