There are two ways to describe what we hear: sound and noise. Sound is the good stuff and noise is – not so good. And noise can be our external soundscape, or come from within, our internal head noise.
What we consider as noise is individual; it’s our unwanted sound, the chaotic background to what we want to hear. If you like music playing while you’re having dinner with friends, you can enjoy it while still carrying on a conversation. But for many with hearing loss, music is a background buzz that interferes with speech comprehension. Noise.
Nature sounds are the environmental world in action. The sound of rushing water or wind moving through trees can be beautiful and joyous. But if those same sounds (water, wind, music) are part of your internal soundscape – that’s tinnitus and/or hyperacusis and your emotional response is very different.
Like many people, I have tinnitus. Mine is severe, with many components and movements. It’s raucous and non-musical, orchestrated by a demonic conductor, who fires off neurons in all the wrong directions, creating noise-madness. But I also have reactive tinnitus, which flares up EVEN LOUDER when my brain hears external sounds. This means that all sounds that I hear, including speech, are cloaked in extra layers of jumping sound, generated both externally and internally. I don’t know how else to describe it.
In the moments when all that noise is dialled down, speech sounds crisp and clear, the way my hearing aid and cochlear implant intend it to sound. But then pow! A sound attracts a vibrating fuzziness that attaches, leech-like, to human voices and other sounds.
So, what can we do about it, given that each of us experiences our head noise in different ways and for different reasons?
The good news is that after five years of living with it, I have found ways to cope. Not perfectly, but certainly better than I believed possible when it first started and when it was far ‘quieter’ than it is now.
- Prioritizing: I choose what sounds are worthy of my attention. I try to keep my brain tuned to the important, interesting stuff. This can mean staying “in the moment”, a component of mindfulness. The program I’m watching. The food I’m eating. The conversation I’m having. The scenery on my hikes. Or, I can be planning or daydreaming about something. All these focus points have more positive value to me than what I’m hearing in my head, and can help divert my attention from my head noise.
- Meditation: If you had told me a year ago that even a few minutes of daily meditation would help calm my neural pathways – and that I would be meditating on 5 out of 7 days – I would have given you a major eye-roll. But trust me, try it.
- Exercise: There are all sorts of physiological reasons why daily, heart-pumping exercise pays off by lowering the intensity of inner sound. Exercise also improves your mental well-being and ability to cope with the stress of tinnitus.
- Noise avoidance. Because I have reactive tinnitus, finding ways to reduce my external noise exposure is crucial.
- I limit the amount of time streaming sound to my devices via Bluetooth, for example, watching TV or on zoom calls. My friend and fellow advocate Roxana Rotundo is a bilateral CI user. She found that her brain, via her CIs, became used to the pure sound of the streaming, which compromised the way she hears acoustically, in real life. Also, by limiting the hours of daily zoom calls she was making to run her business and focusing on in-person meetings when possible, her tinnitus was lower.
- I watch shows on my iPad, without sound, using good captioning, speechreading skill, and my ability to ‘hear’ the dialogue in my head. I love it.
- More sleep, better sleep. When I am rested, my head noise seems better, perhaps because I handle it better. Better sleep comes from eating well, exercising and limiting alcohol intake. While wine can help temporarily override the sensations of head noise, it can also impact sleep quality and even increase tinnitus the next morning. It’s a sad story, but true.
There’s no magic bullet for tinnitus. Yet. Different strategies offer relief for many people, and this combination of tactics, plus wearing my hearig aid and sound processor, helps me cope better and live better with the noise that blankets me 24/7.