Hearing therapy and what it’s taught me about tinnitus

Walking down a grey corridor in an unloved NHS community hospital, the curled edges of leaflets about coping with old age poking out of wire stands, I’m feeling a bit suspicious about how hearing therapy could help me. I enter a large room, peeling magnolia paint, tiny cell-like window, two chairs in the middle of the room. And there sat on one of the chairs my therapist. A vision of serenity with a genuine smile, she beckons me to the chair opposite hers.

The last time I had therapy was with a slightly intense therapist, who stared too much and in one session had a giant bogey sticking out of his nose – I didn’t go back. That was for grief and anxiety. I really didn’t know what to expect from therapy for my ears!

Tinnitus, from a medical point of view, really sucks. For a start it’s difficult (and subjective) to explain what you’re hearing – how loud is loud, what does the ringing sound like? Next, there’s little understanding of tinnitus and it’s causes, mainly because it’s not very sexy from a medical research funding point of view! You also can’t measure tinnitus – there’s no version of a thermometer or stethoscope that can give your doctor numbers to put on a chart or table. Despite this, there are things you can do to help manage your tinnitus. Such as hearing therapy…

That first session I was asked a lot of questions – how, what, when, where my tinnitus affected me and set a couple of tasks – keep a diary of the sounds and think about what stress relieving activities I could incorporate into my life. I left feeling more positive, tinnitus still there, but I’d been able to ask the questions that had been worrying me: will it get worse, will it go away, will it spread to my other ear (I have unilateral tinnitus in my left ear). The therapist had answered the questions she could and been honest about the ones that she couldn’t. I trusted her and agreed to see her again the following month.

Over the next year or so, I went back every few months. We discussed how I was getting on, celebrated breakthroughs such as a reduction in tinnitus perception, set objectives and agreed how much I should push myself. We also discussed sharing my needs with my family and friends – when my tinnitus is bad I get a throbbing pain in my ear, temporary reduction in hearing and inability to cope with more than one sound. After one session I went home and explained to my partner how he needed to say my name when talking to me to get my attention and that sometimes when driving I can’t cope with sound from the radio and also having a conversation. It’s little things, but they made a massive difference to how I coped with tinnitus and everyday stress. And the world was good for about a year.

Then a few months ago I realised my tinnitus was back, really back, possibly worse than before. I didn’t panic, I knew it was stress-related – lockdown with noisy neighbours, cancelling the trip of a lifetime and keeping a husband with a heart condition safe had taken its toll. Thankfully, we’d left my therapy options open. One quick call and I had an appointment with my therapist – over the phone of course.

My tinnitus hasn’t instantly got better, but the phone session gave me an opportunity to discuss what was going on in my world. I could rant about the noise from my neighbours and rather than feeling selfish, I was given support, told I wasn’t on my own in my (slightly/ very murderous) feelings about the people living opposite and given some new ideas to help calm the ringing in my ears. I even joined the National Trust afterwards so I could plan some quiet ‘me time’ at some of the local sites.

What is hearing therapy?

Hearing Therapy is a service which can provide information, counselling and practical assistance for people experiencing issues with hearing loss, central processing disorders, tinnitus and hyperacusis.

Here’s a link to the Bath and North East Somerset Community Health and Care Services hearing therapy service that I used. This is a free service. A quick look at other NHS trusts shows similar services, but please check with your GP. For non-UK countries please contact your local medical provider.

The service uses the Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT) approach which includes:

  • Education
  • Identifying triggers
  • Implementing mindfulness-based stress reduction activities

What has hearing therapy done for me?

  • Answered the worrying questions I had about my condition – or at least provided the information I needed to process my concerns
  • Helped me understand my condition
  • Helped me explore ways to reduce stress and manage my tinnitus
  • Helped to reduce my perception of my tinnitus – it’s always there, probably not going to go anywhere, but most of the time my brain ignores it
  • Showed me that the ‘me’ time I needed to help reduce stress is not selfish
  • Worked with my introvert personality to find the best coping methods and stress-reduction activities
  • Given me the words and concepts to discuss my condition with my partner, family and friends so they can better understand it and my needs.

Hearing therapy is not a quick solution. You need to put in the time and effort to help yourself. Having an appointment in my diary meant that I had focus on the homework I’d been set – I’m someone who needs deadlines so this this was important for me.

If you think hearing therapy could help you, please get in touch with your GP or medical provider. From my initial suspicions about any kind of therapy, I am now so grateful for the time I had talking through, addressing and learning to cope with my tinnitus.

More about tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT) from the British Tinnitus Association.

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