The Tinnitus Trap
It’s not surprising that so many people experience an emotional reaction to tinnitus. Our brains are pre-wired to react with anxious attention to unexplained sound. It's a survival mechanism, an emotional reflex left over from a time when the rustle of leaves, snap of a twig, call of a bird, could signal danger, and a quick, vigilant response could spell the difference between life and death.
Your brain has identified tinnitus as a threat and has sounded the alarm, the self-protective emotional reaction called anxiety. And it’s not just anxiety. Tinnitus can open a Pandora’s Box of emotions: anger at being knocked off course, sadness at the loss of a prior quality of hearing, guilt if there’s reason to believe you caused the problem, and shame that you can't, as others seem to do, just shrug tinnitus off. Emotions like anxiety are natural defenses against circumstances that threaten health and well-being. As an intrusive, uncontrollable sound, often accompanied by sensitivity and hearing loss, tinnitus is the perfect trigger for emotional distress.
In the face of threat, anxiety motivates action to regain safety, comfort and control, through direct intervention (controlling the threat), avoidance and escape (running from the threat). This self-protective response is reflected in the thoughts and actions of people with tinnitus distress:
- Subject tinnitus to round the clock surveillance (hypervigilance)
- Avoid loud settings you believe could make tinnitus worse
- Avoid quiet settings where tinnitus is more difficult to mask
- Monitor and manipulate factors you believe influence tinnitus volume, pattern and pitch
- Review past actions you believe may have caused the problem
- Anticipate and prepare for future disability
- Spend countless hours and dollars in search of the hidden switch to turn tinnitus off
I call this response tinnitus resistance. While natural and understandable, a resistant response to tinnitus carries an unintended consequence. By placing tinnitus front and center as the driving force behind your thoughts and actions, you send your emotional brain the powerful message: "Tinnitus is important, and cannot be safely ignored. Do not habituate. Repeat, DO NOT HABITUATE!” What begins as an adaptive survival reaction can progress to a 24-7 nightmare, as tinnitus resistance sets off a vicious cycle that deepens distress, blocks habituation, and can eventually eclipse your entire life. I call this cycle The Tinnitus Trap!