meditation and tinnitus

Mindfulness: Week 5 – exploring difficulty

John Alex Murphy, The Province: This past week’s Mindfulness meditation introduced a new way of dealing with difficult thoughts that was radically different and initially quite disconcerting for me.

I should initially mention that this past long-weekend, my family and I went on our first 3-day backpacking trip together in Skagit Valley Provincial Park, a spectacular mountain wilderness area about 200 kilometers east of Vancouver. It’s a beautiful place to spend time in nature. As it turned out, it’s also an exquisite place to meditate.

I was excited to start another new week of my eight-week Mindfulness course. So at the end of our …

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Meditating with tinnitus

Fotolia_164586_XSIf you suffer from tinnitus – persistent ringing in the ears – you may wonder whether meditation is a good idea. And yet it can be a powerful tool in helping you come to terms with the white noise inside your head. Meditator and long-time tinnitus sufferer Mandy Sutter airs some of the issues.

Tinnitus can make meditation very difficult. And because meditation is mostly silent, it may seem that meditation can make tinnitus very difficult, too.

It’s certainly true that as soon as you sit down on the cushion and close your eyes, the tinnitus seems to get louder. It isn’t really getting louder: it only seems that way because you are cutting down on other external stimuli. However, the thought that you’re making it ‘worse’ by meditating can be off-putting, if you let it go unchallenged.

Even accepting that, some days it’s still tempting to stay off the cushion completely. And of course, a missed day can easily turn into a missed few days, a week, a month.

Indeed, some tinnitus experts believe that sufferers should avoid silence altogether.

But this rather black-and-white view doesn’t help the person who wants to meditate, so rather than hanging up one’s meditation mat for good, I think it’s worth investigating some of the resources available to see if there’s anything out there (or in there!) to help you.

Courses and books

Perhaps the first thing to consider is attending a led course on managing your tinnitus through mindfulness meditation. These courses, which are becoming popular with healthcare professionals, are held in a variety of settings, including medical ones. They aim to defuse the anxiety and stress caused by tinnitus and they often report excellent success rates. Try typing the words ‘tinnitus’ and ‘mindfulness’ into your search engine to see what’s available in your area.

There are other types of tinnitus retraining, too. One scientist of particular interest is Pawel Jastreboff, who rejects the old idea that tinnitus is caused by damage to the ear and believes in re-educating sufferers to think of the condition positively as, say, ‘the music of the brain.’ He posits a strong connection between anxiety about tinnitus and its perceived severity, and has found that a shift in thought can have a dramatic effect on someone’s perception of their tinnitus.

Vidyamala Prue Burch’s book ‘Living Well with Pain and Illness’ (reviewed here on Wildmind) is another helpful resource. It doesn’t deal specifically with tinnitus, but uses meditation to approach any chronic condition. There are practical tips on how to cultivate a wider awareness of your body that puts your condition into context.

Some practical tips

Personally I’ve found this particular approach – of cultivating a wider awareness – invaluable. I now sometimes wear earplugs while I meditate (this is a complete no-no for some tinnitus sufferers, though, so please approach with care). Because wearing earplugs magnifies ALL inner body sounds, like swallowing and breathing, the tinnitus sounds seem to decrease by comparison, or at least just take their place among my body’s other normal noises. I find I can simply welcome them to the party.

I have also spent some time actively listening to my tinnitus during meditation, and although this may feel unpleasant and even counter-intuitive at first, I recommend it. When you really listen, you may identify sounds like crashing cymbals or whistles, or notice that your tinnitus varies in volume, or has a wave-like pattern. I have found it helpful to learn the length and breadth of my tinnitus in this way: it makes me less prone to worry.

Meditating with your eyes open can help: the increased visual stimulus acting as a balance to the unsolicited sound stimulus. You can use incense in a similar way. And I sometimes find it useful to meditate sitting against a warm radiator, the body sensation of heat again providing a balance. Walking meditation is another valuable and legitimate resource.

Using sound

Also helpful are guided meditations on CD or mp3 (there’s a good selection of these here at the Wildmind store, and search the meditation pages for free ones. Bodhipaksa has many on the free Insight Timer app. Of course, there are still periods of silence during a guided meditation (though some have background muzak) but the voice coming in and out focusses one’s attention away from the tinnitus.

Listening to ambient sound is another option. You can buy devices or download mp3 files that reproduce the sound of waves, or rain pattering on a windowpane, or the crackling of a log fire. Whale or dolphin sounds can also be good. You can concentrate on the sounds as the object of your meditation or use your normal meditation technique (e.g. counting the breath) with the sounds in the background. I have a Sound Oasis which I find invaluable. These devices can be pricey though, so it’s worth downloading some free ambient sounds to your computer before you buy one, to make sure this method suits you.

You’ll find some ambient sounds more effective than others, depending on the character of your own tinnitus and the nature of your own emotional responses to things. I usually turn my Sound Oasis to ‘Harbour Swell’ (the sound of a creaking boat bobbing on the waters) but this might not suit someone who suffers from seasickness!

Listening to music may help, though you may find it too emotionally stimulating. In fact, this may be one of the rare occasion when muzak is better than music!

Forget any idea that this isn’t ‘proper’ meditation (something that bugged me for a while). It’s just a different kind of meditation.

For some tinnitus sufferers, wearing earphones is helpful. The sound is brought closer, as if inserted between your hearing and the tinnitus. This isn’t the case for everyone, though, so find out what suits you.

Going on retreat

Silent meditation retreats pose a particular problem for the tinnitus sufferer. Forget ‘me and my shadow’ – it’s ‘me and my tinnitus’ for days on end. What you can face intermittently during the course of a normal day can seem overwhelming when it’s continuous.

But it’s still do-able. My tinnitus is quite severe, but I go on retreat several times a year.

The important thing is to look after yourself. As you already know, tinnitus is an invisible condition, so no-one makes allowances for you automatically. You may find it difficult to make allowances for yourself, too. But however embarrassed or guilty you feel about making a special case of yourself in an environment where you are strongly encouraged not to, please do: you have my permission, at least! Retreat leaders can be very helpful if approached beforehand.

Request a single room if one is available. You can play ambient sounds and there will be less chance of being woken during the night (tinnitus sufferer often find it difficult to get back to sleep).

Keep your eyes open during meditations if you need to, or take yourself off for walking meditations while the others sit in the shrine room.

No matter what the normal rules are, allow yourself books, iPod or CD player and earphones. You may not need to use them, but they can act as a security blanket.

If particular foods exacerbate your tinnitus (e.g. caffeine) a retreat may offer the ideal opportunity to avoid them for a time. If other foods help, take them with you. Chocolate helps my tinnitus (only kidding, unfortunately).

Taking care of yourself on retreat can be a valuable lesson in self-metta (loving-kindness towards oneelf).

Coming to terms with tinnitus

Having said that, it was on a silent retreat three years ago where I had no security blanket that I perhaps came most deeply to terms with my tinnitus.

My single room hadn’t materialised, and I was sharing with someone who kept putting the light on through the night. Despite decamping to the sitting room a couple of times, I went for four nights with virtually no sleep. I became more and more anxious. My tinnitus, exacerbated by the anxiety, raged continually. I felt as if a jetplane was taking off in my head. All the meditations were a write-off. Finally I made a break for the retreat office to ring my partner and ask him to come and get me (he’d only have had to drive 200 miles). But I couldn’t remember our phone number.

I decided to stay till the next morning, if only because it was too late to leave that evening. And that night in bed, tinnitus raging, I felt despair laced with terror. What if this never ended? What if this was how it was going to be for the rest of my life? My heart thundered and I had to stuff the pillow into my mouth to stop myself from crying out.

Then I heard a clear voice in my head. ‘You don’t need to follow that train of thought,’ it said. ‘You just need to calm down. You know how: you have the tools. But they won’t work if you don’t use them.’

For some reason, I was able to recognise the truth of this. It was a great relief. I lay in bed going through every relaxation technique I’d ever learnt, be that in cognitive behavioural therapy, meditation classes, or hypnotherapy. It took a while but eventually I felt my body and mind profoundly relax, and knew I would sleep, if not now then later. The tinnitus, loud and insistent, was still there. The feeling of relaxation wasn’t one of relaxing despite it, or beyond it, but alongside it. At that moment, some of the emotional charge went out of my perception of my tinnitus, and it has never come back.

So, through meditation, I’d say it’s eminently possible to reach some degree of accommodation with your tinnitus, no matter how you go about it. You may even come to see your tinnitus as significant, instead of a nuisance: a vehicle for self-nurturing, and for reaching accommodation with yourself as a whole (including all the painful, messy and inconvenient bits).

You may even find, over time, that you have made friends with your tinnitus: or at least that you are not the sworn enemies you once thought you were.

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Rethinking tinnitus: When the ringing won’t stop, clear your mind

Allison Aubrey: Silence is a beautiful thing. But Robert DeMong has accepted that he’ll likely never experience it again.

He’s got a condition called tinnitus, which means a ringing sound travels with him everywhere he goes, including to bed at night.

It came on suddenly about five years ago. And he says it threw him into depression. “It was like an ugly monster inside my head,” recalls DeMong. “I couldn’t sleep at night.”

Now, DeMong says, he’s left the anxiety and suffering behind.

He participated in a research Read the rest of this article…

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When meditation seems impossible

My partner goes for a run and comes back looking despondent. ‘I struggled all the way round,’ he says. ‘It was as if I’d never run before.’ He has run several times a week for 3 years now.

‘I know how you feel,’ I say. I’m not thinking about running, though, but meditation. I’ve been meditating for some years now, but when I sit down sometimes it feels impossible. My head itches and the items on my ‘to-do’ list compete for attention. There are odd bodily sensations that could be illnesses in the making. And if all else fails, there’s my good old tinnitus.

Outside responsibilities of work, family and friends, I tend to navigate by feelings. I do things that feel good and avoid things that don’t. This modus operandi has its drawbacks. ‘When did you last use that windsurfing board?’ friends ask. Or ‘I haven’t heard your djembe recently.’ Then there’s my Arabic dance gear languishing at the back of the wardrobe.

With all these activities, pleasure and interest waned. And because these were my motives, there was no reason to carry on. But I’m not meditating for pleasure and interest. Or am I? When I started out, I had ideas of self-improvement. But now I’m told there’s no self to improve. Perhaps I’m trying to re-create an experience I once had, where the veil between me and the world – a veil I didn’t know was there – fell away for half a day.

Who knows? When I’m swamped with difficult feelings, I certainly don’t. And I’m not used to spiritual discipline. The only precedent in my experience is kneeling on the hard, polished floorboards of the school hall to recite the Lord’s Prayer. We prayed with straight faces because Miss Borman rapped you on the knuckles with a ruler in front of the rest of the class if she caught you smirking.

So, when the going gets tough, why don’t I just get up from the cushion and make myself a cup of tea? Well, sometimes I do. But what about those times I don’t? For inspiration, I ask my partner why he finishes his runs. He says it’s because he remembers what life as a couch potato was like.

I’m not blessed by a recollection of the quality of life before meditation. But I am blessed by the anxiety that sends its sinuous tentacles into each and every meditation, reminding me how unmanageable my life can get. So I sit on in fear. I sit on in the shadow of Miss Borman, who believed in our own good even if she had a funny way of showing it. I sit on in the hope that ‘this too will pass’ even though I don’t know it will. I sit on in the hope that the practice will do the ‘me’ I persist in believing in ‘good.’ I sit on to keep myself and the world company. I sit on out of habit and in doubt, feeling like an idiot. I sit on out of gratitude and joy. I sit on to find comfort at least in discipline. I sit on without knowing why. I sit on.

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Want to beat tinnitus? Try meditating

When John Snow developed a whistling sound in his right ear, his GP blamed an infection that had left his eardrum inflamed and partly blocked his hearing.

He was prescribed antibiotic drops and told the irritating noise would disappear within a few days, once the infection subsided.

But when his ear did finally heal about a week later and his hearing had fully returned, 55-year-old John, from Little Canfield near Stansted in Essex, could still detect the relentless din.

‘It was a high-pitched whistling, and although I could hear it during the day, I particularly noticed it when I was trying to get to sleep at night,’ says the father-of-two.

‘Some nights I would just lie there unable to drop off.’

John had become one of the estimated five million Britons who suffer from tinnitus, a condition characterised by noise in the ears (often described as buzzing, whistling, humming or ringing) which has no obvious cause.

What began as a minor irritation eventually took over his life as, for the next six years, John struggled to cope with the effects it had on his sleep, concentration and mood.

‘I have a stressful job as a primary school head teacher and the less sleep I got, the worse I felt,’ he says. ‘I was taking sleeping pills, becoming short-tempered, moody and struggling to cope with the pressures of work. I started to feel that it was ruining my life.

‘After a year or so, it got even worse – the high-pitched whistle changed into a sound I can only describe as being like Morse code, a permanent bleeping noise that I could hear all the time. It was horrific.’

But thanks to a new form of treatment, John’s life is no longer dominated by the noises in his ear. Called mindful meditation, it works by training the brain to come to terms with the tinnitus, unlike other techniques that teach it to avoid the problem.

The technique is already effectively used to treat anxiety and depression. Its use for tinnitus is based on scans that show when the brain tries to shut out the relentless humming, this causes increased brainwave activity.

In other words, the more the brain tries to fight the problem, the more it ‘tunes into’ it.

The meditation technique, however, teaches patients to regularly stop and confront their thoughts and worries about the noise – and this appears to have the opposite effect.

It seems the brain gradually comes to terms with the tinnitus and stops focusing on it so much. By ‘detuning’ in this way, the patient begins to notice the problem less and less.

Psychologists and hearing specialists pioneering the therapy insist that it’s not a cure for the underlying nerve damage in the inner ear that is responsible for tinnitus.

This damage – which can be caused by a cold, an ear infection or exposure to loud music – triggers an abnormal stream of impulses the brain interprets as constant sound.

But there is evidence that the new therapy may, over time, lead to changes in brain function that mean the patient eventually doesn’t notice the tinnitus.

Many of us suffer temporary tinnitus that lasts no more than a few hours, often from a cold or from going to a loud concert. But for around one in 100 people, it becomes a long-term affliction.

Treatments include counselling, relaxation techniques to ease the stress that can make it worse and sound therapy, where patients listen to background noise, such as gentle music, waves crashing on a shore or even the hum of traffic, to distract them from the tinnitus.

But while most of these treatments depend on distracting the brain from the problem, some experts believe therapies that confront the problem may be more effective.

Mindful meditation is one of these techniques. It’s similar to traditional forms of meditation, in that the technique involves relaxation, deep breathing and focusing on the rise and fall of the chest and stomach.

But instead of ’emptying’ the mind, patients are taught to actually ‘observe’ their thoughts, including their worries about tinnitus.

Our brains are constantly evaluating noise in order to work out which sounds are significant, or threatening, and which ones can be ignored.

When the brain is under stress, it is more likely to evaluate unimportant sounds as threatening. But by learning to accept that it’s natural to have troublesome thoughts about the condition, the theory is that the brain learns, in turn, that there’s no need to perceive these sounds as threatening.

In short, it is being ‘reconditioned’ to accept tinnitus as normal.

‘Our aim is to help people acknowledge that they have the condition, that it won’t cause them to lose their hearing and that what they can hear is actually harmless neuronal activity in the pathway from the ear to the brain,’ says Jo Blaquiere, hearing therapist at the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital in London, which has pioneered use of the therapy over the past two years.

‘It’s not for everyone,’ she adds. ‘But some people find it a powerful technique for coping.

‘It’s different to relaxation therapy because the goal is not to relax. With mindful meditation you learn to accept how things are as best you can.’

Professor Laurence McKenna, consultant in clinical psychology at the hospital, says the technique appears to help sufferers combat fears that tinnitus will ruin their lives.

‘Some people worry that they’ll never experience peace and quiet again and, as a result, will slowly go mad. These are the kind of thoughts that keep people focused on the tinnitus.

‘We can’t be sure how mindful meditation alters the brain, but there is evidence of changes in the way the brain functions.’

For instance, some studies suggest it leads to an increase in activity in the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with positive emotion.

John was initially sceptical that consciously thinking about the tinnitus could actually make it go away. But having failed to respond to other therapies, including relaxation techniques, he persisted, meditating for 20 minutes a day.

This involved finding a quiet place, doing some deep breathing and gradually counting down from 500.

‘Then when I did start to think about my tinnitus, I was able to tell myself that it was just a part of me, that it was not taking over my life and that I could move forward one day at a time.’

‘Admittedly, for a long time nothing seemed to happen and I even thought about giving up/ But because I was desperate, I persisted. And I’m glad I did.

‘After a few months I realised I was not hearing the Morse code sound in my right ear as much as before,’ says John, who is married to Linda, 53, also a primary school head teacher.

‘Now I hardly hear it at all. But whenever I get stressed I spend a few minutes doing the meditation to prevent it returning.

‘This treatment has given me back my life and I feel deeply indebted to Jo and her team.’

Mindful meditation for tinnitus is not yet widely available on the NHS but some hospital audiology departments may take referrals from a patient’s GP.

[Pat Hagan: The Mail]
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