Ringing, whistling, humming, buzzing – we often talk about the physical side of the hearing condition tinnitus, but it can take its toll on our wellbeing, too. Here, Emmie Harrison-West reflects on her own story, and explores the management tools that work for her and others
I remember hearing it for the first time, that ringing noise. It came to me in the dark, when I was in my late teens. It sounded like the screeching, erratic tones of dial-up broadband. Or like someone keeping their finger pressed on the doorbell deep inside my head – and there was no way to stop it. It would come and go. Sometimes I’d hear a rush of high-pitched ringing throughout the day, but it was worse at night.
Until my early 20s, I was constantly anxious and on edge before bed. Sometimes, I dreaded going to sleep in case I had a flare-up. When it happened, I’d spend hours staring at the ceiling, wishing for it (whatever it was) to disappear again. I suffered for it during the day. Felt drained, emotional, and tearful.Stress only made it worse; it was a truly vicious cycle.
Turns out that noise, deep in my ears, was tinnitus, and I joined the one in eight adults in the UK who suffer from it.
“Tinnitus is the name for hearing noises in your ears or head that are not caused by an outside source,” Franki Oliver, audiology adviser at the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) told me. “It’s often described as ‘ringing in the ears’, but some people describe it as hissing, humming, buzzing, or whooshing.”
“Imagine hearing an unwanted sound all day,” Carly Sygrove, coach and hearing loss blogger told me. “Perhaps it’s the high-pitched whirring of the fridge, or maybe it’s a noisy neighbour playing music throughout the day. Like these scenarios, tinnitus is an intrusive sound, and there’s no way of turning it off.”
Two years ago, aged 27, I was diagnosed with hearing loss and tinnitus, one of a reported 12 million deaf people in the UK. I realised my hearing wasn’t quite right when I couldn’t understand people who wore masks – it was only then that it dawned on me how much I relied on lip-reading.
“Many people wrongly assume that it is their tinnitus, rather than their hearing loss, that is causing hearing difficulties,” Nic Wray, communications manager at British Tinnitus Association told me. They added that the causes of tinnitus are still ‘not fully understood,’ but could be triggered by exposure to loud noise, ear infections, wax build-up,’ and even Covid-19, or long Covid.
At first, thinking it was a wax build-up, I sought help from an audiologist who soon diagnosed me with mild nerve deafness. It was genetic, but likely exacerbated by listening to loud music through ear buds, or going to loud concerts growing up.
According to Duncan Collet-Fenson, audiologist at Aston Hearing: “We can all experience temporary tinnitus when we spend the evening at a loud event.” He added: “Our ears can be ‘buzzing’ for a few hours or days afterwards.
“If the noise exposure is extremely loud or over extended periods of time, the damage can be permanent and result in long-term tinnitus, which can be distressing,” he said.
It didn’t help that I worked in a call-centre as a teen, either. I remember working 10-hour shifts, and taking my headset off to a ringing in my head. Now, I’m advised that I need hearing aids to protect my level of hearing now, as it’s only going to get worse.
“Most people are able to manage their tinnitus, or don’t notice it’s there, but for some it can have a significant effect on their lives,” Franki Oliver told me. “Tinnitus can also have an impact on our mental health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, increased stress can also make tinnitus seem louder, which causes someone to pay attention to the tinnitus.”
According to a recent study conducted by the BTA, 52% of respondents with tinnitus reported low mood or sadness, with 43% saying it got worse with anxiety. More than a third (39%) stated that it made them feel worried or anxious.
“Tinnitus has a big influence on quality of life, and the impact on mental health can be severe,” Nic Wray explains. “It’s an isolating condition, and more than a third of respondents report feeling that their partner or family don’t understand.” Nic told me that one in three with tinnitus felt they had no one to turn to, with a shocking one in 10 reporting suicidal thoughts.
Hearing loss is irreversible. But while there’s no cure, as such, thankfully there are ways to manage tinnitus. “Tinnitus often resolves by itself, as the brain learns to filter out the noise – this is called habituation,” Nic says. “For others, management techniques help reduce it to a less intrusive level.” It doesn’t mean you need to ‘miss out’ on life, either.
Personally, I found that wearing reusable, so-called ‘party’, earplugs helped me at concerts and festivals, reducing the ringing in my ears afterwards, without missing out on my favourite tunes or conversations with friends. This helps reduce loud volumes to a safe level, without scrimping on quality. I also banned in-ear buds or pods, choosing over-ear headphones and abiding by safe noise levels (this is under 85dB – and there’s many settings on smartphones to help control this).
I found that applying subtitles to TV shows helped, too. It eased my stress if I couldn’t hear a show as well as I thought I should have, and it meant I wasn’t over-exerting myself, finally able to relax.
Carly Sygrove told me that keeping a diary of her symptoms identified her triggers. “I realised that stress, lack of sleep, alcohol, salty foods, and stormy weather all caused my tinnitus to spike. Just having more understanding of my triggers made me feel more in control,” she added. “I love walking in the countryside, and as soon as I’m surrounded by nature, I feel calm.”
A quiet noise in the background, during an episode, can help encourage your brain to tune into something different, too. “This could perhaps be a fan, the radio, or music,” Nic Wray told me. “It should be played at a quieter level than your tinnitus, so your brain can choose to listen to the more interesting sound,” they added.
“Finally, many people find it helpful to talk to someone about their tinnitus,” Franki Oliver says. Experts recommend joining forums, support groups, and coaching sessions to boost self-confidence, both in-person or online, and sharing experiences with friends and family to help make you feel less alone.
But above all, it’s important to visit a specialist if you’re worried, or if you notice your hearing changing. Charities like the RNID and BTA both have free, impartial helplines to contact, if you’re unsure of where to turn.
Now, rather than feel overwhelmed, I practise self-control. While it was a bitter pill to swallow, knowing that my hearing loss will never go away, there’s a sense of power in preserving what I have, on my own terms. I don’t let it rule my life, rather I rule it, and I know that I’m not alone. Plus, how cute are sparkling pink hearing aids going to look?