How to support someone with tinnitus
Of all the hardships we face in life, there are few things worse than watching a loved one suffer from a debilitating health condition.
The feeling of powerlessness–of wanting to help so desperately when there is nothing you can do–it’s devastating, especially when there isn’t a cure or simple answer.
At its worst, tinnitus–the medical term for ringing in the ears–can become like torture, completely destroying a sufferer’s quality of life. Anxiety and stress levels go through the roof, sleep becomes more and more difficult, and the noise is inescapable. The sound never stops and so far too often, hope is not a part of the equation.
It’s excruciatingly difficult to watch someone you care about suffer so severely.
Most people in this situation ask, “How can I help?” or “What can I do?”
But with a complicated health problem like tinnitus, the answers aren’t obvious, and your loved one may not know either.
The good news is that you do have the power to help, both directly and indirectly, in ways that actually make a difference.
(If you are suffering from tinnitus yourself, share this with your friends and family!)
An invisible illness
The first thing you need to understand about severe tinnitus is that when you don’t look sick, everybody automatically thinks you’re healthy. But you’re not, you’re suffering greatly, and nobody really understands what you’re going through, assuming they even believe you in the first place.
This is a major challenge for invisible illness patients across the board. But in the case of tinnitus, it’s even worse, because most people have experienced temporary ringing in their ears after a loud event in a way that was not problematic at all. As a result, they will think you are overreacting. They experienced it themselves and it wasn’t an issue, so it couldn’t possibly be as bad as you describe.
They are wrong.
You know that terrible feeling you get when you hear nails on a chalkboard? How it grates on your nerves in the most uncomfortable way imaginable? When it’s bad, tinnitus is exactly that, only exponentially worse, because it never ends.
Anxiety and stress levels rise to uncontrollable levels, as panic takes hold. The noise makes it hard (if not impossible) to sleep, and the chronic sleep deprivation only increases the suffering.
Work is a challenge too, if you still are able to work at all. It is incredibly hard to focus with the sound of tinnitus constantly blaring in your ears, 24-hours a day, 7-days a week.
Doctors don’t always help the problem, either. So many tinnitus sufferers are told that there is nothing they can do, that they just have to live with it. This is simply not true–lasting relief is entirely possible–but most people won’t question their doctor. And so they only end up feeling more hopeless and afraid.
Your loved one is suffering terribly and most of the people around them will never even try to understand.
But you can be the person who believes their pain is real. You can’t take away their suffering, but you can validate their experience, and that makes all the difference in the world.
You can be the one who understands.
Compassion and empathy
Educating yourself is a good place to start. Take time to learn more about tinnitus and the specific nature of your loved one’s suffering.
You will never have the power to take away your loved one’s pain but it’s important to spend time really trying to understand their situation because it opens the door to empathy.
Here are some of the basics to get you started: Tinnitus is the experience of hearing sounds when no external sounds are present. It is not a condition in itself, but a symptom of many different conditions, like hearing loss, head and neck injury, temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), vestibular disorders like Meniere’s disease, and acoustic neuromas, just to name a few.
It’s much more prevalent than most people realize, affecting 10-15% of the general population by most estimates. That’s over 50 million people in the US alone, with hundreds of millions of sufferers worldwide. And as of right now, there is no cure.
Fortunately, treatment is entirely possible. Many coping tools can help tinnitus patients find temporary relief in the middle of a difficult moment, and lasting relief is also possible through a mental process called habituation. Sufferers can get to a place where the sound no longer bothers them, where their brain just starts to tune out the sound from their conscious awareness more and more of the time.
But it takes time, regardless of the strategy employed, and it’s not an easy journey.
Talk to your loved one. Ask them about their experience, and when you don’t understand something, ask them to explain.
They won’t have all the answers, and that’s OK. Just trying to understand what they’re going through is a comfort and puts you miles ahead of everyone else who doesn’t care.
So try to put yourself in their shoes. The better you understand their situation, the more authentic your support will be in their eyes.
Help your loved one relax
On a daily basis, tinnitus patients are confronted with massive amounts of stress and anxiety. They are essentially stuck in an extreme state of fight or flight, and it’s a vicious cycle. The stress and anxiety further exacerbate the tinnitus, causing only more anxiety, and so on.
When actively suffering, there may be a number of things that your loved one can do to feel better, but it’s very difficult to think or act rationally in the middle of such an intensely negative emotional experience. It’s incredibly hard to have the presence of mind necessary to get up and do something about it when doing something about it requires effort.
Fortunately, relaxation techniques can be an effective way to cope with tinnitus. And you can make a real impact on your loved one's emotional state by helping them to relax, both mentally and physically, in the middle of a moment of suffering.
You can help them to relax mentally by encouraging them toward a relaxing hobby, physical exercise such as tai chi or yoga, breathing techniques, aromatherapy, meditation, gratitude practice, sex, music, brainwave entrainment, or really any other activity that your loved one enjoys.
Addressing physiological stress is important too, because when the body is deeply relaxed, the mind generally follows. The mind-body connection is real–it’s just not always obvious. But it’s why you feel so calm after a great massage.
You have a lot of options here. You can give your loved one a massage, or suggest self-massage with a lacrosse ball or foam roller (also known as myofascial release). You can encourage them to take a hot bath or shower, or take them to a sauna, steam room or hot tub. Really anything that helps your loved one to relax physically will help them to relax mentally and emotionally.
The more relaxation techniques you can help your loved one put to use, the better they’ll be able to cope.
Another proven method shown to ease symptoms is cognitive-behavioral therapy, and you can help by talking to your partner about exploring therapy.
Put on background noise
Sound masking is one of the simplest coping strategies available to tinnitus sufferers. When the sound is bothersome, temporary relief can be found by drowning some of it out with background noise.
It’s not a perfect solution–if your loved one has hearing loss, or if their tinnitus is too loud, masking may not work very well, if at all.
But as a coping tool, when it works, it can be extremely effective. And it’s something you can do for your loved one to help them directly.
All you have to do is put on some background noise. Music, nature sounds, broadband noise (white, pink, or brown noise) and podcasts or radio shows can all work well. Really any sound that your loved one finds relaxing or entertaining can do the job, so it’s a good idea to explore different masking options ahead of time, when they aren’t suffering as much.
Just make sure to keep the volume of the background noise below the volume of their tinnitus whenever possible. Otherwise, their tinnitus volume might spike a bit when the masking is turned off.
As obvious as all this advice may seem, I’ve found that many tinnitus sufferers resist sound masking when they are struggling. In my 1-on-1 tinnitus coaching practice, a lot of my clients express that turning on sound masking feels like giving up, like they’ve lost the battle in some way, so they often avoid it altogether.
I understand the sentiment–I’ve even experienced it myself in my own journey with tinnitus–but it’s unhelpful. If putting on background noise is all it takes to feel a better in the middle of a difficult moment, they shouldn’t hesitate.
But if they do, you can be the one to help.
Distract them from the problem
All of us are fully capable of tuning out background noise from our conscious awareness with a mental process called habituation. We do it automatically, all the time. It’s how we’re able to carry on conversations in loud restaurants and stay focused on our work in noisy office environments.
But when it comes to tinnitus, there is a big problem: We evolved to use sound as a way to monitor our environment for threats, and it’s simply impossible to ignore a sound that the brain interprets as danger.
When we hear the sound of something dangerous, we have a fight-or-flight stress response. The issue here is that the brain isn’t very good at telling the difference between real danger and imagined threats like tinnitus. So we react to the sound as if the danger is real, only the fight-or-flight response never really ends, because tinnitus doesn’t just magically go away.
But most sufferers are able to ignore the sound of their tinnitus at least some of the time. The challenge is that it usually only happens when they are completely engaged with some activity they really enjoy.
This kind of distraction offers temporary relief, and it’s also a small taste of what it feels like to habituate (the difference is that when you fully habituate, it feels like this most or all of the time, not just when you are very distracted).
The next time your loved one is having a hard time you can help them cope more effectively by distracting them from the sound.
Encourage them to participate in any activity they enjoy that helps them to ignore their tinnitus. Better yet, be a part of the distraction yourself!
More often than not, this can be enough to help your loved one get through a moment of crisis.
Don’t get frustrated
The hardest part of seeing a loved one struggle with a chronic condition like tinnitus isn’t the tinnitus itself. It’s the never ending, repetitive nature that makes it so difficult. They suffer, then they suffer again and again.
As you try to support them, you will often feel frustrated, but it’s important to try to remain calm. When your loved one is suffering, they are at the mercy of forces outside of their control. They don’t want to feel what they are feeling, and so they might get angry, emotionally needy, distant or sad.
In any case, it’s safe to say your interactions will not always be as rational as you would expect under normal circumstances. And it’s easy to lose your cool when your good intentions are met with hostility, or a reaction you didn’t expect. Pain brings out the worst in a person.
But if you can remain calm, and keep a cool head, the difficult moment will pass. And you will be supporting your loved one in a way that actually makes an impact.
It’s challenging, but it’s worth the effort in the end. Because you can make a real difference in your loved one’s quality of life.