According to recent research from the British Tinnitus Association, released to mark the start of Tinnitus Awareness Week this week, the condition impacts over 7 million adults in the UK
And of the 1,620 surveyed in the study, one in seven revealed that their tinnitus can lead to suicidal thoughts, so much does it affect how they feel on a daily basis.
What is tinnitus?
Nic Wray, from the BTA (British Tinnitus Association), told w&h, “Tinnitus is the perception of noise in the ear/head with no matching external sound. It’s often called ‘ringing in the ears’ but people can experience any sound – buzzing, hissing and whining noises are common.”
The noises may be continuous, but for some, they come and go, and people can experience it in either ear, or in both ears.
The research from the BTA stated that in some instances, the noise can even be as as loud as a jet engine, or a dentist’s drill – so it’s no surprise that the persistent sounds can prove incredibly challenging to deal with. “Some people’s tinnitus is very quiet and in the background, for others it is very loud – and for some, it varies from day to day, ” Nic said.
Just about everyone can experience tinnitus – it doesn’t affect just one age or social group.
Why can it have such a damaging effect on our mental health?
With the BTA’s research showing that tinnitus can severely affect people’s mental health, Nic explained that often, it has such a impact because of its persistent and ever-present nature.
She explained, “Tinnitus can be unrelenting.
“It can be very difficult to move your attention away from the noises. The noises are not always pleasant in tone or quality. These combine to increase the person’s stress arousal response, which can trigger feelings of anxiety, mood changes and sleep disturbance.”
Hayley Smith, founder and owner of PR company Boxed Out PR, has tinnitus, as a result of suffering from meningitis two years ago.
For her, the daily, high-pitched ringing she experiences can be debilitating. “The best way to describe the sound is someone shrieking in my ear. Sometimes I don’t notice it, but other times it is deafening, and I can’t hear over it.”
Some days, the impact on Hayley’s mental health is unbearable. “The tinnitus is worsened when I have high anxiety, and I have become really sensitive to loud noises including motorbikes and police sirens. It can sometimes leave me cowering in the street,” she told w&h.
“In general, it makes me really anxious, and I can get very irritated and short tempered when it’s at it’s worse,” Hayley continued. “It can make me feel trapped and claustrophobic.
“Most of the time, it’s completely liveable – but there are days where it really affects me. There are times where it completely takes over. I can find myself sitting for ages just listening to it, not really registering anything else.”
Following the British Tinnitus Association’s research on the conditions affect on mental health, MPs including Conservative MP Sir John Hayes, and Labour MP Lilian Greenwood, called for more funding into the condition, in order to discover better treatment, and, possibly, a cure for the illness.
“It is so important for health professionals to realise the impact that tinnitus can have, and not to trivialise the condition.” Nic said. “We often hear of people being told by their GP, ‘there’s nothing that can be done, you’ll just have to learn to live with it’ and that’s not hugely helpful (or accurate).
“Ultimately, we need a cure for tinnitus, and that will only happen if there’s more research – and for that we need more funding.”
Causes of tinnitus: why does it happen?
What causes tinnitus is unclear – however, it’s generally thought that it occurs as a result of some kind of physical or mental change, rather than exisiting as a condition of its own.
It may come about as a result of hearing loss of some kind, or an ear infection, certain medications, or other medical conditions such as diabetes.
The charity explained, “If there is a change in the system, for example, a hearing loss or ear infection, the amount of information being sent to the brain changes. The brain then responds to this change in levels by trying to get more information from the ear, and the extra information you may get is the sound we call tinnitus. The tinnitus is therefore actually brain activity and not the ear itself.”
The BTA also explain that it can happen as a result a change in our stress levels, caused by big life changes, such as grief or a significant move.
As such, depression and anxiety are also considered by the NHS to be a possible cause of tinnitus – meaning that in order to properly treat the condition, most often, the cause needs to be discovered first.
Tinnitus treatment: how can you ease the symptoms?
As tinnitus usually occurs because of an underlying cause, it’s important to treat the root of the problem first.
This may meaning adopting techniques for better mental health, such as talking to a friend or family member or practising relaxation tactics, or, seeking professional support in the form of therapy – be it Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), where your reaction to tinnitus is managed, or mindfulness, or another type of professional help, such as counselling.
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy can also be helpful for some sufferers – the idea is that you attempt to get used to the sound of tinnitus, to help you eventually tune it out, to an extent. However, the BTA notes that this therapy is not often used in its strict, structured iteration, because it’s effectiveness is not proven – instead, many medical professionals working with tinnitus will incorporate small bits of the concept into their treatment plans.
Of course, if the tinnitus is caused by hearing loss, a hearing aid can help to restore proper hearing, and reduce the occurence of tinnitus.
But if you’re struggling with the condition, there are plenty of comprehensive resources on the British Tinnitus Association website www.tinnitus.org.uk.
They also have a free telephone, email and web chat support.