Last night, as I collapsed in bed ready for a good night’s sleep, my tinnitus was loud – unusually so. I knew I’d had a long and busy day which probably explained the tinnitus, so I wasn’t concerned. But it was still annoying! Rather than letting it wind me up (and stop me falling asleep) I used my imagination to help me cope with the sounds in my head.
If you’re my age, (ahem, 40+) and in the UK, you may remember these guys who were in two popular comics – the Beano and Topper:
They were called The Numskulls, and each Numskull was responsible for one of the key functions of the head. It was the first cartoon I turned to every week.
What I imagine when I’m in bed and my tinnitus is loud, is quite similar to this image. I tell myself that my head is a very busy office. Inside, all the Numskulls are hard at work assessing all that I have done that day – everything I have seen, smelled, tasted, heard, and touched – and filing it away appropriately.
So, the happy memories of a delicious cup of coffee, a beautiful walk with my dog, and a phone conversation with my friend that was filled with laughter are all filed away somewhere I can easily retrieve them. The not-so-pleasant memories of an argument I had, or the dog throwing up on the rug are filed away in a strong box and the key thrown away!
As you can imagine, all this activity creates quite a lot of noise as the Numskulls discuss where to file all the experiences I have had. When my tinnitus is louder than normal I tell myself the Numskulls have got behind in their work and have drafted in friends to help.
By this point (and well done for sticking with me!) you might be wondering if I have lost the plot. But using our imagination in this way does have a scientific basis.
Tor Wager, director of the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at CU Boulder and co-senior author of a a research paper in 2018 states that “imagination is a neurological reality that can impact our brains and bodies in ways that matter for our wellbeing” She adds “You can use imagination constructively to shape what your brain learns from experience”.
For many of us an increase in our tinnitus can make us start to feel anxious, sometimes very anxious. Our sympathetic nervous system becomes activated as if there is a threat to our safety. Adrenaline and cortisol start coursing through our bodies, which makes it hard to get to sleep.
Using our imagination allows us to tell our brain that our tinnitus loudness is not a threat by turning the sound into something else. The scenario I use in my imagination reassures my brain that the noise is a perfectly normal part of my body’s night-time routine.
You can use whatever works for you. Imagining something familiar and soothing enhances the impact. For example, one of my cat-loving clients pretends their tinnitus is a cat and imagines throwing a ball for it when it becomes intrusive.
How could you use your imagination to reduce your tinnitus distress?