Why distraction is a bad tinnitus tactic

Many of us use distraction as a coping tactic for our tinnitus. It seems like a logical solution to the distress that tinnitus can cause – if we stay busy we won’t notice our tinnitus much or at all.

Distraction can be useful for very challenging days, for example, when we get a tinnitus flare. But using it long-term can backfire and leave us struggling even more with our everyday tinnitus. This is why I teach strategies to replace distraction in the Bee Empowered Programme

Here’s why distraction isn’t the tinnitus solution we might think it is:

It’s exhausting. To escape from our tinnitus we often have to occupy ourselves with feverish activity, whether that’s working, the gym, gaming or scrolling through social media. We’re trying desperately to keep our brain busy, so it doesn’t notice the distressing sounds, emotions and thoughts that arise from tinnitus. This is completely unsustainable. Our brains and bodies weren’t built to be actively engaged to this extent all the time. We end up just as exhausted from distraction as we were from the tinnitus.

It can become addictive. It’s easy for our brain to become habituated to the distractions that we choose. We get to the point where the gaming, scrolling or TV-watching we were doing isn’t distracting enough. We start to sense our tinnitus in spite of our relentless activity. The thoughts and feelings we were hoping to escape from start to sneak into our mind even when we’re busy. So, we ramp up our distraction methods in an attempt to bury our tinnitus experience again.

It creates a jack-in-the-box. I used to be a huge fan of using distraction for my tinnitus. My husband less so. I thought I was doing great. My husband, poor man, would be on the receiving end of my frustration, anger and despair when the jack-in-the-box lid flew open. You see, like many of us I was coping by using busy-ness to suppress my tinnitus distress. Sooner or later, though, that lid that we put on our emotions and thoughts, pops up like a jack-in-the-box. Out pour all those distressing thoughts and feelings in a scary and uncontrolled manner. Because distraction has been our only strategy, we have no other tools to manage our tinnitus distress, and we suddenly find ourselves absolutely overwhelmed.

We can’t use it 24/7. What happens when we can’t use our favourite distraction methods, for example when we need to go to sleep? The distressing thoughts and feelings about our tinnitus, that we’ve held at bay during waking hours, come flooding into our minds. That makes us all-the-more aware of our tinnitus sound. And we wonder why we can’t sleep…

So what do I recommend to my coaching clients?

As I mentioned at the start, distraction does have a role to play in tinnitus management – but as one of our tools for coping with tinnitus flares. To manage our tinnitus day in, day out we need a different strategy.

That strategy is mindfulness. Mindfulness teaches us how to handle our thoughts and feelings around our tinnitus each and every day. We train our brain to recognise these thoughts and emotions as perfectly natural, nothing to be scared of, and something we can easily manage. If we think of our thoughts and feelings as a pressure cooker (remember them, from years ago?) distraction allows the pressure to build and build. Mindfulness lifts the lid off regularly. Through mindfulness techniques we notice and care for our tinnitus distress every day. This reduces the pressure to something that is manageable, and often barely noticeable. We are controlling our tinnitus experience, rather than allowing it to control us. That’s a much better, and a more sustainable way of living with tinnitus.

To find out how you can learn the techniques I personally use and teach to manage tinnitus distress take a look at the Bee Empowered Course