By Barry Keate
Barry Keate, has lived with tinnitus over 40 years and has published 150+ research articles on numerous aspects of tinnitus. He is an expert on the condition and a well-known advocate for those with tinnitus.
People react to tinnitus (the ringing, buzzing, hissing, or roaring sound in their ears) with varying levels of discomfort ranging from mild annoyance to debilitating distress. This article explains how stress levels cause or worsen tinnitus and provides simple exercises you can use to alleviate your symptoms.
There are two primary ways stress can cause or worsen tinnitus symptoms.
- Tension Syndrome: Stress levels tighten the muscles and fascia around the neck, jaw, and face, causing pressure that leads to ringing, humming, or popping sounds in the ear. This condition is also common among those who have their heads in the same position for long periods, like people who work desk jobs staring at a computer all day.
- Feedback Loop: We experience varying stress levels in response to triggers. When tinnitus disrupts daily activities, we can respond with frustration, anger, sadness, or anxiety. These intense negative emotions trigger the fight or flight response, which worsens tinnitus symptoms. It can also cause us to focus more intently on tinnitus sounds so they seem to grow louder, increasing stress. This process feeds on itself with escalating levels of discomfort.
Tension syndrome is a physical catalyst, while the feedback loop is emotional. Fortunately, there are both physical and emotional exercises to reduce stress and symptom severity.
With tension syndrome, the solution is relaxing the muscles and fascia, creating pressure by using some or all of the following methods.
- Head Tilt Stretch– Take your left arm and cross it over your chest to prevent you from compensating for the movement and diminishing its effectiveness. With your right hand, gently and slowly pull your head to the right side until you can feel a good stretch. Hold for one minute before switching to the other side. Repeat as needed throughout the day. (Note: if you experience pain, especially after trauma, discontinue the exercise until you can have it checked by a doctor or chiropractor.)
- Jaw Stretch– Place one palm on your forehead to provide stability. Use the other hand on the jaw to help open your mouth as wide as possible, stretching the muscles in the cheeks, jaw, and temples. Hold this position for two minutes. Repeat several times during the day.
- Facial Massage– A facial is always lovely, but you can use a tennis ball for a quicker and less costly massage. Place the ball against the jaw, cheek, and temple muscles, using your palm to roll the ball in circles. When you find tender spots, concentrate on that area until the pressure releases. This technique is most effective if you practice it for several minutes at least twice daily until symptoms abate.
- Neck Massage– Getting your hands in the proper position to the full benefit of a neck massage can be challenging. If you can, have someone massage your neck for you. It will reduce stress and loosen the tight muscles around your neck. If not, there are neck massagers to fit every budget and pressure preference. With regular use, your neck muscles won’t get as tight.
You can improve the symptoms of tinnitus caused by stress with stress reduction techniques. It sounds simple, but it can be challenging until you get the hang of it. The object is to disrupt the feedback loop often enough to break the mental connection between tinnitus and your fight or flight response.
The mind and body connection allows physical action to affect your mood and emotional state. Take deep breathing, for example. People experiencing fear, anger, or depression breathe shallowly and quickly. Slowing things down tells your body the danger is past, and it can relax.
Retraining your brain requires time, repetition, focus, and a lack of distractions. The more you practice the following techniques, the faster and longer-lasting the tinnitus relief will be.
- Box Breathing– There are many deep breathing techniques. The easiest to remember is box breathing, which can be done anywhere. Breathe in for four to seven seconds, hold for four to seven seconds, release for four to seven seconds, hold for four to seven seconds, and repeat. While you do it, pay attention to your body as it relaxes. It will take your mind off the tinnitus momentarily and increase the effectiveness of deep breathing in lowering stress.
- BBO Distraction– According to the Harvard Business Review, our minds are trained to go for the Bigger Better Offer. Dopamine-releasing activities provide a chemical payoff for altering our focus. Healthy options include listening to your favorite music, exercising, sitting in the sun, or meditating. Distract yourself briefly, check your stress level, and repeat if necessary. The key is self-modulation, or a mindful approach to using trigger behaviors to change our physiological state. The Harvard Business Review reported a 57% – 63% decrease in anxiety levels in study participants who participated in mindfulness techniques.
While you may not be able to completely eliminate your tinnitus, you do not have to allow the stress and anxiety you feel to change the way you live your life. Whether the source of your tinnitus symptoms is physical or emotional, there are a myriad of physical, mental, and emotional tools that can help relieve your tinnitus symptoms and improve your overall quality of life.
Individuals respond to tinnitus, which includes sounds like ringing, buzzing, hissing, or roaring in their ears, with a spectrum of discomfort spanning from minor irritation to severe distress. This article elucidates the connection between stress levels and the onset or exacerbation of tinnitus, along with offering straightforward techniques that can be employed to relieve your symptoms.