Tinnitus and Stress: How Stress and Silence Affect Tinnitus

Major changes in a patient’s lifestyle can trigger symptoms. 2020 was no stranger to this fact, forcing many to change their sleeping patterns, exercise routines, diet, and work and home life. With these changes came a wave of tinnitus and stress. And as a result, many patients are reporting increased Tinnitus (or uncontrollable ringing in the ears) than ever before.

What’s the relationship between Tinnitus and stress?

Tinnitus & Stress

While there is no concrete research between tinnitus and stress, in general, stress does our bodies, their systems, and our overall health no good.

Prolonged stress leads to heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, and mental health problems, so it should come as no surprise that stress can worsen tinnitus.

In stressful situations, our bodies release cortisol in order to kick into the Fight or Flight Response. The purpose is to “get us out of danger” – like a sabertooth tiger running us down.

Today, stressors come in a more constant, non-dangerous stream. A work project isn’t going as planned, you can’t find the zoom link for the upcoming meeting, or family routines have been turned upside down.

Because stressors are all around us, many of us go through life without resolving stress. Our bodies are constantly releasing cortisol to overcome this stress.

As a result, we don’t give our bodies ample time to rest and recover from these stressors. Without proper recovery, our systems continue to flare up and have adverse effects.

Thus begins the vicious cycle of stress and symptoms:

People who are stressed by their tinnitus tend to think about it in ways that reflect despair, hopelessness, loss of enjoyment, a belief that they will never get peace and quiet, and a belief that others don’t understand. They may resent the persistence of tinnitus, wish to escape it, and worry about their health and sanity.

Although it is not always clear whether stress causes the onset of tinnitus, or perhaps is a contributing factor, it is common for tinnitus to start at times of high stress or after a period of stress. It is also common for existing tinnitus to become worse during periods of high stress. For some people, tinnitus acts as their ‘barometer’ of stress, often worsening when there are difficult things going on in life. Of course, the worsening of tinnitus when you are already feeling stressed can add another burden, and lead to a ‘vicious cycle’ as each stress influences the other. – British Tinnitus Assoc.

The other notable, recent trigger of tinnitus is that COVID brought us back to more silent and isolated environments, making us simply recognize our tinnitus more.

Tinnitus & Silence

For a condition that brings a lot of unwanted noise, silence can be the worst enemy for people with tinnitus.

The natural hubbub of life – loud traffic, busy office environments, activity-filled days – was replaced by silent isolation. No more commutes to work. No more loud officemates. Just you and your home.

The silence makes us more attune to the noises of tinnitus.

Joe Scarbrough, host of Morning Joe and a man with Tinnitus, describes the past year with tinnitus very eloquently:

I’ve played in bands, recorded music, lived with headphones on, and had TV earpieces in for years. Because of that, I’ve had loud ringing in my ears for about a decade. It has become severe over the past year…

The COVID pandemic has been terrible for many with tinnitus. Doctors have told me that many of their patients have experienced more intense ringing over the past year. Part of this may be due to stress. Much of it probably has to do with people being in the quiet of their homes instead of in the office, walking through busy streets, and being surrounded by more ambient noise.

With tinnitus, silence is not golden; it is often a tormentor…

A few weeks back when I was coaching my son’s baseball game, I noticed in the 4th inning that I had not been distracted by ringing all game. After focusing a bit, I realized the tinnitus was still there, but it was being washed from my consciousness by a stream of ambient sounds. If you are always working alone in a home office or generally finding yourself surrounded by relative silence because of the pandemic, this too will soon change.

Does this mean you should drown out your tinnitus with noise whenever you start to hear the ringing?

It’s an approach, but not the right one. Like fixing a broken pipe with duct tape, the pipe is still broken.

Treating Tinnitus

Generally speaking, the best resource for resolving tinnitus is an Audiologist or Otolaryngologist (Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor).

Treatment starts with deep diagnostics of your middle and inner ear to find any abnormalities in your auditory system. And depending what is identified, a variety of treatments might include:

  • Medication
  • Ear wax removal
  • Amplification or hearing aids
  • Using white noise machines or other masking devices
  • Tinnitus Retraining Therapy 
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Even though we’re Vestibular Audiologists (meaning we primarily deal with the balance portion of the ear), there is a lot of overlap between patients with tinnitus and balance disorders.

For instance, Meniere’s Disease, Vestibular Migraine, and Post-Concussion Dizziness all can contain symptoms of tinnitus.

Just like chronic dizziness, tinnitus is also an invisible disruption to a person’s daily life. Many people with tinnitus are left feeling hopeless when they are unresponsive to traditional treatments. As vestibular audiologists, we see the challenges patients face with invisible illnesses. It can be very overwhelming and isolating.

Let us be your resource for finding a solution.

Give us a call at (310) 954-2207 or schedule an appointment here.

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