How not to freak out when tinnitus changes

For the last few nights I have woken up in the darkness and noticed that my tinnitus is louder than usual. In fact, rather than the gentle hum of a Boeing 737, my tinnitus sound has turned into the clanging of multiple old-style fire alarms. Remember these (yes, my tinnitus is showing my age!)?

My immediate sleep-fuddled thought was “what the heck?!”. I could feel my teeth start to clench and my shoulders tense up around my ears. Then, when I woke up a bit more, I was able to think about things a bit more rationally:

“Ok, this is just a different sound. Your tinnitus does this sometimes; you know this from past experience. It will be right (as we say in Yorkshire, where I grew up).”

And it was.

But it might not have been.

What if I had allowed the fear and alarm (pun intended) and anxiety I’d experienced in my groggy state to take hold? What if I had noticed that my jaw was clenching and my shoulders tightening and thought,

“My tinnitus is roaring. It’s unbearable! How on earth am I meant to sleep with this cacophony? I can’t cope! How am I going to function tomorrow if I can’t get back to sleep? What is this new sound anyway? Why is there a new sound? Should I be worried? Maybe I should grab my phone and google it, or pop into one of the Facebook tinnitus support groups? Maybe I should make an appointment with my GP just in case?…”

All of these thoughts are absolutely natural in the circumstances and very valid. But none of them would have been very helpful.

What’s the difference?

The difference between the experience I had, and the much worse one I could have had, is mindfulness.

Once started to wake up, my mindfulness practice reminded me I had a choice. I could react to this new sound out of habitual anxiety and spend the rest of the night hours worrying what this sound could mean. Or I could respond in a more helpful way. For me, that helpful way was to reassure myself that tinnitus changes like this from time to time for many people. The fact that I have past experience of my tinnitus changing sound, tone, and volume before returning to its normal baseline presentation was also useful. It allowed me to look at that factual evidence and remind myself that this altered sound was likely to be temporary (and it was).

Here’s how you can use mindful cognitive behavioural therapy techniques to manage those scary moments when tinnitus seems to have a life of its own:

Four tips to manage those moments of sound-change

  • Notice all your emotions and allow yourself to experience them rather than suppressing them. Each and every one of them is entirely valid.
  • Remind yourself of how you habitually react to situations like this, and how unhelpful those reactions have been in the past. Decide to try something different this time.
  • If you have had experience of this happening before, use that to your advantage. Remind yourself that when this has happened before, you have coped and your sound has returned to its normal baseline.
  • If you haven’t experienced this before, challenge the negative thoughts that appear. So, for example if you think “I can’t cope” ask yourself “is that really true?” and then remind yourself of when you have coped successfully in other challenging situations.

If you need help

If you’re struggling to notice when you’re caught up in negative thoughts, or to work out how to move away from them towards more helpful thought patterns, the Bee Empowered Mindfulness Course offers just the help you need. Focused solely on helping you manage your tinnitus, it equips you with a toolkit of tactics to use every day, and whenever tinnitus does anything out of the ordinary. Find out more here.