Tinnitus affects one in ten of us. It can be heard as humming, or hissing or whistling, but for Malcolm* it was a constant buzzing noise. He’d recently retired and he told that “It’s driving me demented – this buzzing noise all the bloody time”.
Malcolm had joined the one in a hundred for whom their tinnitus affects the quality of their life. He told me that the buzzing hadn’t got louder since he’d retired, but that it had become much more distracting. While he was working he’d found it easier to cope with – partly because of the noise of the machinery, but mainly because he had more to occupy his mind during the day.
Tinnitus can have a range of causes, but there isn’t any real understanding yet of exactly how it works. We know that the tinnitus noises are generated inside the brain, in response to a lack of sound signals from the cochlea. Whether the brain fills in gaps in the signal itself, or whether it is overly sensitive to the signals that remain isn’t clear. Whatever the reason though, if our brain is creating the noise we may stand a chance of getting it to ignore or treat the noise differently
The fact that Malcolm’s tinnitus became harder for him to cope with when he stopped working was actually a good sign. It showed was that he was able to distract himself, and start to ignore the constant background noise. What we needed to do was to help him to learn to be able to take his attention away whenever he wanted to.
The method Malcolm chose was to relax, and to imagine walking through his body, looking for the source of his tinnitus. He described walking along a hotel corridor, stopping to listen at each door. When he found the door he opened it and found himself in a junk room, full of old furniture. Looking around he found the source of the constant buzzing sound was an old radio.
Malcolm imagined being able to turn the sound up and down, before finally turning it off completely, and then unplugging the radio and pulling the lead out. Then he walked outside, enjoying the quiet of a park, listening to the soft rustle of the leaves, and enjoying the quiet sound of birdsong.
Malcolm chose this because he liked the idea of finding the part of his subconscious that was creating the noise and dealing with it. His image of taking a journey down corridors, and finding something in a forgotten room captured how he thought of that part of him. Using that, we taught his subconscious to be able to deal with his tinnitus at source, and to be able to enjoy natural sounds again.
* Malcolm’s real identity has been protected, and he is happy to share his story.
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