Tinnitus is condition where the person hears a ringing in their ears or other sounds when none of these sounds are present in the environment. It is a very common problem, especially as people age. According to studies, up to 20% of people over the age of 55 report symptoms.
What causes tinnitus? There can be many causes. The most common cause is noise-induced hearing loss. Other causes include medication side effects, as well as withdrawal from benzodiazepines. In many cases no apparent cause can be found.
For many, tinnitus is a relatively minor problem that they tend to ignore. Almost everyone has momentary tinnitus symptoms. But for other people tinnitus creates a tremendous amount of psychological distress. This includes anxiety and depression. The person fears the loss of their hearing, and tends to focus intensely on their symptoms. They begin to avoid situations where their symptoms are more noticeable. This typically means avoiding quiet locations where there is no sound to mask the tinnitus sounds. Or it may involve avoiding situations where there are loud noises such as movie theaters due to the fear of further hearing loss.
Similar to some forms of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), the person may begin to engage in frequent checking behavior. This means that they consciously check the presence and volume of the ringing in their ears. They may also frequently check their hearing.
The person also suffers from constant thinking about causes of the tinnitus. They often blame themselves for exposure to loud noises in earlier life. They think about the music concerts they attended where they didn’t wear earplugs, or even recreational listening to music. They have strong feelings of regret that can blend into depressive symptoms.
Unfortunately there are no terribly effective physical treatments for tinnitus. This leaves psychological treatment as the primary modality for successful reduction of distress.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) conceptualizes tinnitus much like it conceptualizes the experience of chronic pain. Chronic pain consists of two components. The first component is the physical sensations. The second component is the bother or suffering caused by these physical sensations.
Tinnitus can be conceptualized in the same way. The subjective experience of sounds in the ears is the physical sensation. The interpretations of these sensations lead to the emotional reactions; suffering and bother.
Although CBT cannot directly change the physical sensations of tinnitus, it can change the reactions to these sensations. And changing the reactions can actually lead to a subjective experience of diminishing symptoms.
What are the components of the CBT treatment for tinnitus?
1. Psychoeducation. The first step is to educate the client about how tinnitus works. The model used is that the loss of certain frequencies in the hearing range leads the brain to fill in those frequencies with sounds. It is very much like phantom limb pain, where an amputee may experience pain in the removed extremity.
The nature of hearing loss is explained, and psychoeducation regarding tinnitus and the risk of further hearing loss is discussed. If needed, results of hearing tests can be discussed relative to the actual severity of hearing loss. Although in some cases of tinnitus hearing loss is quite significant and may actually impair functioning, in many cases the hearing loss is relatively minor and does not impair functioning in any way.
2. Cognitive therapy. Here the therapist helps the patient to identify the negative thoughts that are leading to anxiety and/or depression. Typical thoughts for anxiety are: “I can’t live my life anymore with this condition. I will lose my hearing entirely. The sounds will drive me crazy. I’m out of control. If I go into _____ situation I will be troubled by these sounds so I must avoid it. I need to constantly check my hearing to make sure it’s not diminishing. I need to constantly check the tinnitus sounds to make sure they are not getting worse. They are getting worse! They will get worse and worse until they drive me crazy.”
Typical thoughts for depression are: “Life has no meaning if I have these sounds in my ears. I can’t enjoy my life anymore. It’s hopeless. There’s nothing I can do about it. Doctors can’t help me. It will get worse and worse and slowly drive me crazy. I won’t be able to function.”
Once these thoughts are identified then the skills of challenging them and changing them are taught to the client. The client learns how to alter these thoughts to more healthy thoughts. This produces a large reduction in anxiety and depression.
3. Attentional strategies. Because much of the subjective perceived loudness of tinnitus is based on attention, with higher levels of attention leading to higher levels of perceived loudness, developing different attentional strategies will help very much. In this part of the treatment mindfulness training and attentional training is used to help the client learn how to shift their attention away from the tinnitus sounds onto other sounds or other sensations. Often a paradoxical strategy is first used, where the patient is asked to intensely focus only on their tinnitus sensations. This teaches them that attention to tinnitus symptoms increases the perceived severity, and helps motivate them to learn attentional strategies.
Another aspect of attentional retraining is to stop the constant checking of symptoms and hearing. Helpful techniques include thought stopping where the client may snap a rubber band against their wrist each time they notice themselves checking.
4. Behavioral strategies. Tinnitus sufferers typically develop an elaborate pattern of avoidance in their lives. They avoid situations where they perceive tinnitus sounds more loudly. This can include avoiding many quiet situations, including being in quiet natural places such as the woods, or even avoiding going to quiet classical music concerts. They also tend to avoid situations where they might be exposed to any loud noise. This includes movie theaters, concerts, and even noisy office situations.
The behavioral component of CBT encourages an exposure-based treatment whereby the client begins to deliberately go back into all of the avoided situations. In situations where there is actual loud noise exposure at a level potentially damaging to hearing, they are encouraged to use protective earplugs.
The purpose of the behavioral component is to help the person return to their normal life.
5. Emotional strategies. Sometimes it is necessary to help the client go through a short period of grieving for their normal hearing. This allows them to move forward and to accept the fact that they have hearing loss and tinnitus. Acceptance is a key factor in recovering psychologically. This often also includes forgiving themselves for any prior excessive loudness exposures.
Changing the thoughts about the tinnitus symptoms also produces emotional change and a reduction in anxiety and depression.
In summary, cognitive behavioral therapy of tinnitus seeks to reduce the psychological suffering caused by the sensations of tinnitus. Cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and attentional strategies are taught to the client to empower them to no longer suffer psychologically from their tinnitus symptoms. Successful treatment not only reduces the psychological suffering, but because it also changes the attentional focus and lowers the checking of symptoms, people who complete CBT for tinnitus often report that their perceived symptoms have reduced significantly.
1. Traditional psychotherapy is typically NOT helpful for tinnitus.
2. Find a practitioner, typically a psychologist, with extensive training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. If they have experience treating tinnitus that is even better.
3. Give treatment a little time. You will have to work hard to learn new ways of thinking and reacting, and this won’t happen overnight. You should be doing therapy homework between sessions.
4. Medication treatment such as anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication is typically not very helpful, and in the case of anti-anxiety medications can actually worsen tinnitus especially during withdrawal. First line treatment should be CBT.
5. Get help. Although the actual symptoms of tinnitus have no easy fix, the suffering can be treated and alleviated. Especially if you are experiencing depression symptoms, is is important to seek therapy with a CBT expert.
Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.