The Hearing Loss Hangover

Gael Hannan
August 18, 2015

Have you ever been drunk?  Done an Extreme Gorge at the buffet table?  Had a joking comment turn into a screaming fight? Any other activity that started out as pleasurable but then went out of control?

How did you feel the next morning, or the next few days?  Nauseous, exhausted, drained, aching, sad, unsettled, nervous, angry or confused that you let such a thing happen?

Hangovers aren’t the sole domain of too much alcohol; they are the leftover, lingering effects of any negative situation, where you spend too much time doing something that, ultimately, is not good for you.  For people with hearing loss, the queen bee of these beastly situations is the Bad Group Communication Event (BGCE).  These are the unworkable listening situations that involve marathon group conversations—that have meaning to the person with hearing loss.  Prime BGCEs are girls’ getaways, large family celebrations, and business meetings around the boardroom table: enjoyable situations that transform into a BGCE when you are sidelined. You can’t keep up with the conversation. Your reminders for accommodation are continually forgotten in the organic flow of communication, making you unable to participate.  What should have been pleasurable becomes painful.

When these events end, the fallout starts as the stress reaction sets in. For some of us, the hearing loss hangover means a day or two of grumpiness, swearing that next Christmas will be spent with the cats, or that chatty girlfriends aren’t worth the hassle.  But others have a full-blown stress attack.

A friend was in distress after a weekend away with a group of her close female friends.  She emailed me about the stress reaction, what triggered it, and her attempts to counteract it.

“It’s always the same. It doesn’t happen often but when it does, it wipes me out. The trigger is always the same: difficult, effortful listening with a constellation of people that I care about, sustained over a long period of time. It’s the work of listening, of balancing “not repeatedly interrupting the group conversation” with the need to interrupt. The yearning to be part of the conversation and not achieving it. The sadness that follows. Then there’s the balancing of trying to understand why it’s so hard for them to do what I’ve asked them to do—and anger that they can’t or won’t do it.  That’s followed by discouragement and frustration that my efforts have not been effective.

That triggered my typical stress reaction—a bone deep physical exhaustion that lasts for days and a complete exhaustion of cognitive and emotional problem-solving resources.

To deal with it, I give myself permission to get lots of sleep. I pace myself at work, get a massage, take a yoga class, or even visit a professional counselor specializing in hearing loss.  When the stress wears off a bit, I pledge myself to planning more carefully for the next event. It’s important to prevent the accumulation of stress rather than reacting to it and having to do damage control.”

Advocate Shari Eberts has another name for the BGCE—the Circle of Hearing Hell. In her blog Do You Get Hearing Loss Exhaustion, she tells about a situation when she had to walk out of the room, mid-event, “to preserve my energy for other, more productive interactions.” But walking out is a last resort for Shari as it is for most of us, including my friend Myrtle Barrett, president of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association, who says, “I want to be part of the conversation and I hate being shut down. I have not been able to change the situation in the hearing world and the hurts still make me feel old and tired at times. 

I asked a few other hearing loss friends if they had similar experiences. While the emotional intensity varied, no one was immune from the hearing loss hangover—and no one offered a miraculous cure.

Katherine Bouton, author of Living Better with Hearing Loss, says, “I read and take a lot more naps than I used to. Maybe it’s because I’m older, or that I no longer work in an office so I can take a nap whenever I want, but it’s mostly due to exhaustion from the daily hearing effort.

Myrtle Barrett says, “I relax, and remind myself that I will never get it all.”

Toni Iacolucci, a New York advocate, says, I do pretty much the same as everyone else…couch, book, pass out, overeat, whatever works. But I’ve also learned this behavior simply comes with the territory; some situations are completely unworkable, and there’s no need to fight a losing battle.”

One thing is clear. With all the knowledge in the world, all the best-laid plans for managing the listening event, even seasoned advocates with hearing loss cannot completely conquer the stress!  No one has learned to let every drop of hearing loss hurt, frustration or anger roll off their back.  Dee Bolemon, a passionate advocate who has been wearing hearing aids for only two years, was shocked at her reactions during a recent office encounter.  Her hearing aid battery died and she bluffed her way, deaf, through the rest of the conversation.  “I thought I was now a tough cookie,” said Dee. My total dismay and absolute shock at this experience took me totally by surprise.”

We should take an odd comfort in knowing we’re not alone in our stress reactions, whether they’re occasional or frequent, mild or violent. We are not the only frustrated, emotional powder kegs of hearing loss—there are millions of us! And—it’s only natural to feel this way sometimes, because of the often painful ways in which hearing loss disconnects us from other people.

But we owe it to ourselves (and to those who love us) to do what we can to prevent the situation going off the rails in the first place, to recognize and deal with our stress reactions.  But when we do have a hearing loss hangover, we have to wipe our tears and breathe. Indulge in quietness. Exercise. Have a nap or read (especially a book on living with hearing loss).  Write our feelings down or share with a hearing loss friend.  Forgive ourselves and others for not being perfect communicators.

  1. YES! Didn´t know there was a name for this!! No wonder I have had anxiety which I can now attribute to trying to stay in these type of situations. Thank you so much for this article. What an eye-opener. I have had to draw back from so much since my hearing loss. But I have started writing, which is filling my time and doesn’t lead to the anxiety.

  2. So u gave it a name but that is not a solution. How to emotionally prepare ourselves for the next venture into hearing territory is my pressing need. When “all else fails” (as most preparations eventually DO) how do we cope with the situation at hand?

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