- In some cases, there may be a psychosomatic component to tinnitus.
- Studies have found a correlation between tinnitus and certain mental health disorders.
- Establishing a mindfulness practice when your symptoms aren’t as active is an effective preventive measure.
I blame the ringing in my ears entirely on the pandemic—not on the virus, but on the monotony of quarantine and the behaviors it encouraged.
We’ve all been spending a lot more time on our phones and computers. For many of us, that means a lot more time using headphones; I know I spent most of the summer of 2021 listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall while long-distance running or gazing into oblivion. And we’ve all had one of those unfortunate moments when we turn on some music, but the player doesn’t register the headphones for whatever reason, and it fails to automatically lower the volume. When you hit the play button the opening drone of “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” sonically assaults you at ungodly decibels, and the opening lyric, “We don't need no edu-," splits your skull like an earthquake.
We’ve all been there. Anyway, I have finally succumbed to one of the many ailments afflicting the millennial generation. Despite my parents’ sensible warnings in earlier years, I was playing my music too loudly while sulking in my apartment, and although it took me until age 35 instead of 15, it seems I finally damaged my hearing.
Specifically, I have an intermittent ringing in my left ear. I want to emphasize, before we go any further, that this is not a post about dealing with the medical condition of chronic tinnitus. I am unqualified to give any kind of medical advice on that condition, which should be addressed by a health care specialist who can diagnose the cause and recommend treatment to prevent further damage.
In my case, however, my specialist informed me the problem wasn’t a physical obstruction or significant damage, but was primarily psychosomatic. For me, at least, it’s a filtering issue.
Filtering Sensory Data
In any given moment, the human brain is exposed to massive quantities of meaningless sensory data—data that the brain is usually able to sift through, in order to focus on the meaningful stuff, to find the signal amid the noise.
My brain, however, has arbitrarily decided that some of this noise is worth paying attention to. And the more I consciously try to ignore it, the worse it gets. While researching my condition, I was surprised to discover extensive research suggesting a correlation between tinnitus and certain mental health disorders, particularly anxiety and depression.
One study finds that approximately 25 percent of tinnitus sufferers experience comorbid anxiety or depression and that those with more severe mental health disorders experience greater distress from their tinnitus symptoms (Bhatt et al., 2017).
Another found significant overlap in brain activity in tinnitus symptoms and pathological anxiety, particularly in areas of the brain related to focusing attention and managing distress (Pattyn et al., 2016).
Suddenly I realized that the ringing in my ears was eerily similar to another unfortunate affliction I’ve been managing for years: the recurring intrusive thoughts associated with my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Similarities Between Intrusive Thought OCD and Tinnitus
All human beings deal with intrusive thoughts to some extent. We’ve all had the unwelcome experience of a bizarre and disturbing image (often violent, sexual, or otherwise obscene) suddenly springing to mind as if from nowhere. Nonsufferers are generally able to recognize these intrusive thoughts as weird anomalies and brush them off. To them, intrusive thoughts are just meaningless background noise, unworthy of attention—just like the ambient auditory data our ears are designed to filter out.
The problem for OCD sufferers is not that we have intrusive thoughts; the problem is that we cannot just shrug them off. Intrusive thoughts are experienced as a profound, horrifying disruption of the continuity of self, with all kinds of distressing implications. What if you blurt out what you’re thinking in public? What if the intrusive thought is a sign of something lurking in your subconscious, some sinister urge or desire you’ve repressed—and what if, one day, you find you can no longer suppress it and you commit some terrible crime?
From there, OCD begins a process of anxious self-interrogation, which inevitably makes the intrusive thoughts more vivid and more frequent, kicking off a vicious cycle that can totally consume the sufferer’s mind. But the ultimate cause of all that misery is not the obsessive thinking or compulsive behaviors: It is a filtering problem. Something that should just be background noise becomes impossible to ignore.
Personally, I find the ringing in my ears has a number of similarities to my intrusive thoughts. Both forms of disruption get worse when I’m bored or alone, with nothing to distract me. My efforts to consciously ignore them only focus my attention on them, which makes the problem worse. Sometimes they go away for days, weeks, or months—but once I realize they’ve been gone for a while, that’s enough to bring them back in full force. And as I’m dealing with them, it becomes difficult to remember that there are long periods of my life when they simply aren’t a problem. When they're present, both tinnitus and intrusive thoughts feel constant and inescapable.
But, as I've recognized the relationship between these problems, I’ve found that strategies that are helpful in managing one of them can be productively applied to the other. I’ve found that meditation and mindfulness practice are helpful…eventually. Unfortunately, when your mind is racing, trying to sit still and focus on your breathing is often the worst thing you can do; that’s why establishing a mindfulness practice when your symptoms aren’t as active is far more effective as a preventive measure. Finding an engaging activity to distract from your thoughts is usually a more effective short-term coping strategy, and it can have compounding long-term benefits: The problem is powered by repetition, as even a brief disruption helps one to escape from the cycle.
It would be nice if you could block out these mental disruptions, whether OCD intrusive thoughts or an annoying ringing in the ears, just by choosing to ignore them. Unfortunately, in these scenarios, the human mind can be its own worst enemy, and attacking the problem directly just makes matters worse. Instead of focusing brainpower on immediately fixing the problem, you'll need patience, commitment, and unconventional thinking to gradually relieve the symptoms over time. But relief is possible.
Copyright Fletcher Wortmann, 2023. Please credit the original author, Fletcher Wortmann, and Psychology Today.
Bhatt, J.M., Bhattacharyya, N., and Lin, H.W. "Relationships between tinnitus and the prevalence of anxiety and depression." Laryngoscope, 2017 Feb, 127(2), 466–469. Accessed 3 March 2023. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5812676/
Pattyn, T., Van Den Eede, F., Vanneste, S., Cassiers, L., Veltman, D.J., Van De Heyning, P., Sabbe, B.C.G. "Tinnitus and anxiety disorders: A review." Hearing Research, 2016 Mar, 333:255–265. Accessed 3 March 2023. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26342399/