5 quality of life hacks for tinnitus sufferers
These tools will make it easier to cope with tinnitus flares
When you live with tinnitus, the ringing can start to affect every single aspect of your quality of life.
At first, it’s usually just a nuisance—something you aren’t worried about and can easily ignore. But when the sound doesn’t go away, many sufferers quickly find themselves caught in a vicious cycle.
Panic and anxiety rise, which in turn can make tinnitus louder. Suddenly, it’s harder to fall asleep, and the lack of sleep makes it louder still, and harder to focus while you’re awake.
Worst of all, many patients are let down by their doctors. So many people are told that they just have to live with it, that there’s nothing they can do. Though this isn’t actually true—there is a lot you can do about your tinnitus—most people have no reason to question their doctor, so it only creates more panic and further accelerates the vicious cycle of suffering.
The good news is that there is hope: Lasting relief from tinnitus is entirely possible. You can habituate and get to a place where it stops bothering you entirely, where your brain just stops paying attention to the sound. And there are lots of helpful and clever things you can do right now to improve quality of life with tinnitus.
So today, I’d like to share five life hacks that helped me to cope with my own bothersome tinnitus and greatly improved my wellbeing.
Tinnitus life hacks
1. Invest in a pair of high-fidelity (musician’s) earplugs
Everyone should always protect their ears in loud environments, but when you live with tinnitus or hearing loss, it’s of the utmost importance to protect the hearing you have left. Noise-induced hearing loss can change or worsen tinnitus in a big way.
The problem is that many earplugs make it hard to enjoy yourself in certain environments because they muffle and distort the sounds you hear. It becomes difficult or even impossible to have a conversation, enjoy music, or have awareness of your surroundings.
High-fidelity earplugs (also known as musician’s earplugs) solve this problem entirely. Instead of simply absorbing or blocking out as much sound as possible, which is the case with traditional earplugs, special filters are used to evenly reduce the decibel level of your surroundings. This way, you can still enjoy music, have conversations, and maintain situational awareness, just at a lower volume.
You have two options to purchase high-fidelity earplugs:
PRO TIP: Most high-fidelity earplugs come with a keychain carrying case. Keep a set on your keychain so you have them with you at all times. My rule of thumb is to put them in my ears anytime I think, “Is this too loud?” even if it’s not actually a harmful decibel level. I find it’s better to be safe than sorry.
More: Are you a musician with tinnitus? Why it happens and how to cope
2. Pack a tinnitus go-bag
For many sufferers, one of the more difficult aspects of living with tinnitus is the constant feeling of fear. When your tinnitus can spike at any moment, of course you feel fear–it’s like you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. It starts to permeate every part of your life.
One helpful way to counter some of this fear is to pack a medical go-bag and keep it with you whenever you leave the house.
The idea here is simple: Take a few minutes to think about the different tinnitus-related problems that can occur while you are out and about and pack a bag with all the supplies you might need to deal with any of these potential challenges.
In terms of tinnitus, your medical go-bag might contain things like medications, supplements, earplugs, headphones, drinks/food/snacks, hearing aids, in-ear maskers (see below), or a list of emergency contacts.
This way, if things do go wrong, you will more confidently be able to deal with problems as they occur, which should help to reduce some of the fear.
3. Mask ringing in the ears with a sound machine
Sound masking is a well-known and effective coping tool for tinnitus patients who still have some of their hearing. For many sufferers, background noise offers temporary relief by drowning out the sounds of their tinnitus.
Between white noise machines, sound machines, fans, hearing aids (with masking features), in-ear masking devices, and more elaborate stereo equipment, tinnitus patients have a lot of options. But not all masking devices are created equal and you don’t need to break the bank to find relief.
The problem is that there are major drawbacks to most masking devices. White noise machines typically only offer a single sound. Sound machines often have poor quality speakers and short sound files that loop endlessly (it always drives me crazy when I notice the repetition). In-ear maskers and hearing aids with masking features can be helpful, but you are typically limited to only a few different sounds, which may or may not work well with your tinnitus.
In my opinion, the best masking device is your smartphone connected to a Bluetooth speaker (headphones can work well too, in a pinch).
Not only is the sound quality significantly better than your average masking device, but you have access to a seemingly infinite selection of sounds through the thousands of sound therapy and tinnitus apps available in smartphone app stores.
Not every masking sound works well for every type of tinnitus, but with this strategy, there is something for everyone. And you can use this set up for music and podcasts, too, which are often even more effective for masking because they drown out the sound while also holding your attention.
Pro Tip: Whenever possible, keep the volume of your masking audio lower than the volume of your tinnitus. This is known as partial masking, and it’s better than drowning out the sound of your tinnitus entirely, because it can help you to habituate. By lowering the perceived volume of your tinnitus this way, it’s often less bothersome, and over time can help your brain and nervous system stop reacting so negatively to the sound. This is part of the premise of tinnitus retraining therapy.
4. Multi-sensory distractions to better cope with spikes
Distraction is another commonly suggested and effective tinnitus coping strategy. But it doesn’t always work—the more severe the tinnitus, the more difficult it is to distract yourself.
Loud tinnitus spikes are especially challenging. Patients who are normally able to distract themselves from the sound may suddenly find they can’t let it go.
This happens because we evolved to use sound as a way to monitor our environment for threats, and when we’re nervous or afraid, our brains can’t tell the difference between real danger and an imagined threat like tinnitus, so we react as if the danger is real and experience a fight or flight stress response.
In these moments, our brain is doing everything it can to redirect our attention to what it perceives as the source of the threat–the sound of our tinnitus.
But despite this, distraction can still be an effective coping strategy. You just have to approach it a little bit differently. What works best is to combine multiple distractions that involve as many of your senses as you can at once. I call this multi-sensory distraction.
Instead of just listening to white noise, listen to music and play a game on your phone. Or take a hot bath with nature sounds playing while you also read a book. Or exercise outdoors in nature with a great playlist (but always be careful of your surroundings). My personal favorite is to play Tetris on my phone while listening to a podcast on my backyard patio.
There’s no right or wrong way to do this, and the possibilities are endless. As a general rule of thumb, the more senses you can involve in your attempt to distract yourself, the more effective it will be to help you cope with a difficult tinnitus spike.
5. Keep track of small wins
Have you ever noticed after an injury that you feel compelled to constantly poke, prod, and check to see how much it hurts?
Most people tend to focus on pain and discomfort with an intensity rarely seen elsewhere in their lives. But we don’t just do this with physical pain. We do this with other health problems too, and tinnitus is no exception.
When we’re suffering, it’s very easy to get stuck in a loop of negative thinking and rumination. Even when we make meaningful progress toward improving our tinnitus, difficult moments, spikes, and setbacks still occur. And when they do, it’s often all we can think about. A short spike can completely ruin an otherwise great day in the mind of a tinnitus sufferer.
But you can counter this mental shortcoming with a simple journaling exercise. All you have to do is spend a few minutes each evening to write down a list of small wins and little victories you claimed over your tinnitus during the day.
A small win isn't just a moment when your tinnitus quieted down, though it is that too. A small win can be as simple as using a coping tool when your tinnitus was bothering you, even if it didn’t offer the relief you hoped it would. It’s still a better outcome than the alternative of rumination and self-pity.
It could also be just going out with your family or participating in some fun activity that you enjoy on a difficult day.
Any moment where you've claimed some small victory over your tinnitus counts. And by writing it down each night before you go to bed, you’ll improve your mindset and stay more focused on your successes instead of only setbacks and fears.
A multi-layered approach is key
Tinnitus is a complicated health condition, and I fully understand that none of these coping strategies are going to magically fix the underlying problems that prevent long-term relief. It’s also by no means an exhaustive list.
But adopting a holistic approach to tinnitus is important. And small changes for the better can quickly add up to a meaningful result, even when a single action doesn’t move the needle very much.
I hope you’ll give some of these ideas a shot, especially if you are already working hard to habituate. With chronic tinnitus, remember you’re playing the long game, and every small improvement counts!