As a musician and professional photographer, I’ve spent much of my life around loud music. I’ve attended over 500 concerts, performed on all kinds of stages, and spent thousands of hours in recording studios. Needless to say, my ears have been through it.
It wasn’t until 2016, when I was 18, that I realized I was damaging my ears. I should’ve used hearing protection, but alas, I was young and didn’t understand just how delicate our hearing is. Months after a weekend photographing a music festival, a pesky ringing sound started up and never subsided. It’s called tinnitus, and, in my case, it was chronic (AKA, lasting more than three months). Scared and filled with regret knowing how important hearing was for my career, I was not prepared for all the other consequences tinnitus could have on my mental health.
Tinnitus affects about 25 million U.S. adults, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) suggests, and can be caused by irreversible damage to the delicate little inner-ear hairs called cilia, explains audiologist Gail Brenner, AuD, owner and head of The Tinnitus & Sound Sensitivity Treatment Center of Philadelphia. Without these cilia, our brain produces ringing in place of the frequencies it can’t hear anymore, and that’s one way to get tinnitus. But not all people with the disorder get a high-pitched ringing in their ears like me. Though that’s the most common presentation, tinnitus can also sound like cicadas, wind, or grinding steel.
You’ve probably dealt with this after a night out at a concert, club, or sporting event. If you‘re lucky, this annoying noise tends to go away by the time you wake up the next morning. But if you’re like me, the permanent hearing loss and chronic tinnitus never goes away and can truly disrupt your life in a bunch of ways that can feel debilitating enough to trigger anxiety, insomnia, depression, and/or suicidal thoughts as a result, Dr. Brenner adds.
“Sounds like plates clinking together, clipping my nails, or breaking a pencil tip became jump scares for my ears.”
After my diagnosis, I almost couldn’t live with myself and constantly beat myself up over being so negligent. I started experiencing troubling bouts of anxiety and many depressive episodes. And the incessant ringing—at night, in quiet lecture halls, and everywhere else—ramped up my stress levels, which meant a good night’s sleep didn’t come easy. “When a person with tinnitus isn’t sleeping well, it contributes to a heightened stress response and depression,” Dr. Brenner says. “The conditions compound upon one another. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Feeling super stressed about the sounds in your ears can sometimes worsen tinnitus, and potentially cause a fear of certain sounds (phonophobia) and/or sensitivity to certain noises (hyperacusis) because you think some sounds will make the tinnitus worse, Dr. Brenner says.
I experienced both of those while grappling with my tinnitus diagnosis early on. Sounds like plates clinking together, clipping my nails, or breaking a pencil tip became jump scares for my ears. Anywhere there was noise became a high-stress environment for me, contributing to the “vicious cycle” Dr. Brenner describes.
“You have to remember the way you’re feeling [right after a diagnosis], this extreme, is not how you will feel later.”
While there’s no cure, there are ways to treat tinnitus and the mental health side effects that can come with it. There’s tinnitus retraining therapy, which involves using sound generators to help the brain ignore the ringing, says Dr. Brenner. And then you have traditional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) methods that help you challenge negative thought patterns and learn to live with the ringing.
Because of all the complexities of hearing and tinnitus, finding a solid CBT and tinnitus expert is tough, but “a good place to start would be a therapist who deals with patients who have chronic pain," Dr. Brenner suggests. That's because there can be similarities in people with chronic health issues and how they think and behave as a result.
To get help, I saw Dr. Brenner, who taught me how to manage and live with tinnitus. The first step was acknowledging that I could still hear and that neither my life nor my career were over. “You have to remember the way you’re feeling [right after a diagnosis], this extreme, is not how you will feel later,” Dr. Brenner says. “[The brain] has the ability to rewire and change its relationship with tinnitus.”
And it’s true! After accepting that I have tinnitus, I learned to make lifestyle adjustments, like wearing hearing protection in loud environments and taking regular hearing tests without shame. Plus, working with an audiologist who understands the physical and mental health aspects of this condition helped me get my life back on track.
Of course, I still wish my ears didn’t ring. I still get uncomfortable in loud settings, deal with the stress of loud noises, and I even occasionally shy away from a loud night out as a result of tinnitus. But as brutal as it was learning to juggle this mentally and physically taxing “vicious cycle,” I’m living. With the help of an expert, I’ve learned to adapt. I’ve become mentally stronger and wiser, and my career and personal life are better for it.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.