Editor’s Note: Guest author, Charles Smithdeal, MD, FACS, C.Ht, is a former tinnitus and hyperacusis sufferer, a board-certified Hypnotherapist and Otolaryngologist. He is the Director of Hypnotherapy Institute and the Tinnitus Institute, in St Petersburg, Florida.
by Charles Smithdeal, MD, FACS, C.Ht
Do you recall how Socrates taught his students? By asking questions that could lead to logical conclusions. Let’s try it for a moment.
Question: Are tinnitus and tinnitus sufferers the same? Answer: No. 20% of human adults experience tinnitus. Of those, 75% do not suffer - that is, they largely ignore the noise in their heads.
Question: Why do the remaining 25% suffer? Answer: Their tinnitus is closely tied to negative emotions - this is not true of the 75% who don’t suffer.
Question: What are negative emotions? Answer: The ones that make us feel bad, such as stress, fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, and depression.
Question: Where do the sufferer’s negative emotions come from? Answer: The subconscious mind. All emotions originate in the subconscious mind . Might we conclude that in order to eliminate suffering from tinnitus, we should work with the subconscious mind? (In speaking of tinnitus here, I refer to subjective idiopathic tinnitus.)
Hypnotherapy alone has proven as effective for tinnitus sufferers as anti-anxiety medications or Tinnitus Retraining Therapy. Used in conjunction with other modalities, approximately 90% gain substantial relief. These modalities may include dietary modifications and nutritional support such as Arches Tinnitus Formulas, prescription medications, sound therapy, counseling, and Emotional Freedom Techniques™ (EFT).
Before we look at why hypnotherapy is so effective, I’d like to review some basic principles of hearing. You already know that sound is collected by the external and middle ear as vibration, converted to electrochemical energy in the cochlea, and transmitted along the acoustic nerve to specialized brain cells in the temporal lobes of the brain. Cells in the cerebral cortex then interpret these nerve impulses as sound. It’s these interpretations that determine how you hear the pitch, timber, duration, overall quality, and loudness of that sound. Our ears receive sounds, but we hear them in our brains.
Even more significant for this discussion, specialized centers in your brain determine the relative importance of that sound. Your consciousmind can pay attention to about a hundred bits of information at any given instant; however, there are millions of information bits bombarding you constantly, some deemed by your mind to be more important than others. These bits, or stimuli, include sight, touch, smell, taste, and hearing. The relative importance of the stimuli is always changing, so the degree of attention you grant them also changes. Your conscious mind chooses to ignore any not deemed threatening, challenging, exciting, rewarding, or essential to your survival. That is, your brain ignores things it considers unimportant.
Many stimuli are there right now; you just haven’t noticed them. For example, if you’re wearing shoes as you read this, how tight or how loose do your shoes feel where your toes contact the inside lining? Are they comfortable? Warm? Stiff? Soft? Were you aware of these sensations before I mentioned your shoes? Check your peripheral vision right now. While you look straight at this page, how many nearby items can you see; a telephone, perhaps, or copy machine, a notepad, stapler, pencil, or your glasses? Were you truly seeing these items moments ago? Are you aware, right now, of the feeling of the tongue inside your mouth? Do you notice that it’s rough on one side…and smooth on the other?
Question: Why weren’t you aware of that a few moments ago? Answer: Because it wasn’t important to your conscious mind at the time.
Ignoring it occurred through a process called habituation. Your tongue is pretty important isn’t it? Accidentally bite it and see how important it becomes.
The most crucial factor in whether we’re able to ignore (habituate) a stimulus is whether it’s associated with a positive or negative emotional response. How does a sound become associated with an emotional response? Could you ignore the sounds of an angry pit bull growling and charging you or the sudden screeching of tires in a busy intersection? I don’t think so. These sounds immediately fill us with fear, anxiety, or outright terror. Primitive survival instincts in the limbic system of your brain will not allow you to ignore stimuli that evoke fear, provide warnings of danger, or are associated with unpleasant situations.
You may want to remember this formula: Sound of tinnitus + fear = conscious awareness you cannot ignore.
Negative emotions set off a fight-or-flight response generated by your unconscious mind and autonomic nervous system, instantly releasing epinephrine and nor-epinephrine into your system. Your heart speeds up, blood pressure rises, palms get sweaty, breathing increases, and blood rushes to your large muscles in preparation to either run away or do battle. The typical response to the onset of tinnitus is fear or outright panic. What’s wrong with my ears, my head? Am I having a stroke? Is my blood pressure dangerously high? Am I losing my mind? Will I have to listen to this noise forever?
Sound of tinnitus + fear = conscious awareness you cannot ignore. It becomes possible to ignore that sound only when we remove the associated fear, anxiety, frustration, etc. Humans typically fear what they don’t know, don’t understand or can’t control. Understanding the roles of the auditory system and brain plays an important part in removing the fear and anxiety surrounding tinnitus. Also vital is the realization that you have a great deal of control.
The accepted medical definition of hypnosis is: An altered state of consciousness in which the conscious mind is temporarily bypassed, so that the subconscious mind becomes highly receptive to selective, positive suggestions. That’s a mouthful. The National Guild of Hypnotists says: “Hypnotherapy or Hypnotism means the use of trance and suggestion to improve general self-control and maintain a positive mental attitude.” Did you get that last part? “…to improve general self-control and maintain a positive mental attitude.”
Permit me to emphasize the following points: 1) Nobody can be hypnotized against their will. 2) You are not out during hypnosis. You are very focused, and hear every word your hypnotist says. 3) You will not do or say anything that you don’t want to, either under hypnosis or afterwards. 4) You will only accept and act on positive suggestions offered for your benefit. 5) You are MORE in control of your mind and body under hypnosis than at other times. 6) It is not possible to become stuck in hypnosis. You can emerge back into full consciousness anytime you choose.
Every conscious mind contains a critical factor that analyzes, then accepts or rejects all new information based on whether the information agrees with what’s already inside the subconscious mind—our core values. Unfortunately, the critical factor seals off the subconscious mind at around age six. Unless we bypass the critical factor of the conscious mind, it’s almost impossible to effect lasting change in our minds, emotions, behaviors, habits, etc. To achieve maximum effect, the client is first guided to a level of mental and physical relaxation known as somnambulism. This level is completely safe and comfortable, and can be achieved in a matter of minutes. In studies on somnambulism, subjects’ electroencephalograms change from patterns largely of beta waves (wide awake,) to alpha and theta-wave patterns (deep relaxation and focused concentration.) Once clients experience this state, they love it. It feels absolutely wonderful!
Under hypnosis, you enlist your subconscious mind to increase the control you have over your emotions. You can reduce or eliminate negative emotions surrounding your tinnitus, and replace them with positive ones.
Question: What happens when you separate and remove negative emotions from tinnitus? Answer: You move over into the 75% category mentioned above.
You don’t suffer from tinnitus anymore because your brain can now habitually ignore it (habituate.) People sometimes ask if they “lose control” when hypnotized; quite the contrary. During hypnosis, you are more in touch with, and more in control of your body and emotions than when not hypnotized. Many people who undergo hypnotherapy are able to influence the characteristics of their tinnitus, and some can actually reduce its volume, just as people learn to reduce pain through hypnosis.
Professional hypnosis is not some “woo-woo” mind-control foolishness you may have seen in really bad late-night TV movies. To cite a few recent examples of its effectiveness, doctors at the University of Washington Regional Burn Center in Seattle regularly use hypnosis for relief of excruciating pain. A five-year study at the University of North Carolina Medical Center at Chapel Hill recently showed hypnosis to be the most effective single therapy available for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a painful and distressing intestinal condition. Several hospitals affiliated with Harvard Medical School employ hypnotherapy to shorten post-surgical recovery time. One Harvard researcher reported healing of bone fractures quickened by several weeks when hypnotherapy was used. Another showed significant wound-healing benefits for women undergoing breast-cancer surgery. In short, it works.
Hypnotherapy deals directly with the subconscious mind, the seat of memory, emotions, and imagination. Think about that for a moment. Memory…emotions…and imagination represent a huge part of who you are, and they reside in your subconscious - below conscious awareness. Negative emotions of anxiety, fear, frustration, etc. are pulled into the conscious mind in response to thoughts, memories, or events (whether the events are real or imagined). Negative emotions are nearly always associated with experiences that were frightening. When these emotions well up in response to the noise of tinnitus, they bring along associated memories, compounding the fear we feel about tinnitus. Adding anxiety into the mix…about what might happen…rapidly increases our overall suffering and creates a sense of impending doom. This terrible thing is overwhelming. I’ll never be able to deal with it. What if…what if…?
Under hypnosis a client’s subconscious mind can revisit a time immediately before the onset of their tinnitus, and he or she will often be completely free of tinnitus while there - sometimes for an hour or more. When we ask if they hear the noise, they don’t. Once we have them move forward in time to when their tinnitus began, we can easily identify and deal with whatever negative emotions arise. (And they see the emotions for what they truly represent.)
I often combine hypnotherapy with another marvelous technique, Emotional Freedom Techniques™, defusing negative emotions faster than anything I’ve previously witnessed. EFT is based on the work of psychologist Dr. Roger Callahan, known as Thought Field Therapy. Mr. Gary Craig, a Stanford engineer, studied and expanded upon Callahan’s pioneering work, and termed his resulting methods Emotional Freedom Techniques™. The basic premise of EFT is: The cause of all negative emotions is a disruption in the body’s energy system. Consciously thinking of a specific thing (tinnitus) or feeling (fear, anxiety) creates a specific thought field, which generates measurable energy. Positive emotions reflect a healthy energy, while negative emotions reflect a disruption in the system.
EFT has proven effective in reducing or completely removing negative emotions for many thousands of people around the world. I find it extremely effective to reduce the fear, anxiety, and related negative issues that accompany tinnitus. On occasion, the noise itself is dramatically reduced within a few hours or days. No needles are used in EFT, but it might be thought of as a type of psychological acupuncture. With proper instruction and guidance, EFT techniques can be self-administered at home. These techniques can often be learned during telephone consultations. I would like to stress that both hypnotherapy and EFT should be performed by qualified and experienced professionals familiar with all aspects of tinnitus therapy.
Aside from hypnosis, I find one characteristic that helps determine who reacts positively and who reacts negatively to tinnitus, as to most experiences in life. That characteristic is the realization and acceptance that we control almost nothing in this universe. We can fight and struggle against this fact, and be miserable, or we can accept and go with it. No greater positive emotions exist than love and peace of mind. Accepting that this force exists, and trusting that whatever it brings is ultimately for your highest and best good, removes a huge load from your shoulders and mind.