The buzzing, whistling, or clicking sounds of tinnitus are annoying enough during the day, but they can be exasperating when you are trying to fall asleep. The quiet of the bedroom environment can make the sounds of tinnitus, which is a ‘phantom’ noise produced by the brain, seem louder and even more irritating.
And if you can’t sleep because of tinnitus, you could find yourself in a vicious circle. Insomnia causes stress: a lack of sleep impacts negatively impacts your energy level and alertness for the entire day ahead. Repeated nights with poor sleep can make you feel emotionally drained: sleeplessness is also a factor in weight gain, chronic health conditions and accidents. It’s no fun to feel stressed out.
And if you’re stressed out, that can aggravate your tinnitus, which makes it even more difficult to sleep – a vicious circle. When it comes to tinnitus and insomnia, one makes the other worse.
How to break the vicious circle of tinnitus & insomnia
There are several commercially-available tools to address tinnitus, including the Widex Zen Therapy system, which uniquely uses fractal tones to help the patient relax and re-stimulate the brain.
But while these tools can be helpful, the real key to breaking the circle of tinnitus and insomnia is changing your attitude towards tinnitus, which can ultimately affect your experience of the tinnitus itself, says Dr. Robert Sweetow. “It’s all about habituation, or acclimatisation,” Sweetow told an audience at the Widex Audiological Summit.
“Right now, you’re wearing clothing, perhaps a ring on your finger – but it doesn’t irritate you, because you’ve become habituated to it,” he says. “Maybe there’s a refrigerator noise running in the background, or some traffic hum outside. These noises don’t cause you stress. You’re used to them.”
“If you can habituate to the sounds of tinnitus, you will notice them less and experience them as less stressful.”
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Cognitive behaviour training helps fight sleeplessness caused by insomnia
As part of the Widex Zen Therapy process, Sweetow recommends starting with counselling. Patients learn how tinnitus works in the brain, so they understand what’s going on when they start hearing that “buzz.” They’re also encouraged to stop associating tinnitus sounds with negative emotions.
“Tinnitus can be closely identified with fear, anxiety and depression,” Sweetow says. “In counselling, we identify these thoughts and behaviours and try to ‘correct’ them so the person with tinnitus can lower stress and enjoy life more.”
Sweetow says it’s key that family members or close friends of the person with tinnitus get involved in this phase of the treatment as well. They can provide emotional support and encourage the patient to keep up with his or her treatment program. That program will probably include the wearing of a device that produces amplification and fractal tones or some other combination of sounds, along with relaxation exercises and learned ‘new’ behaviours to help the patient get used to and begin to ignore the sounds of tinnitus.
Teaching the brain how to safely ignore the sounds of tinnitus
“The brain, or limbic system, has its own systems to evaluate the importance of external noises. For example, we have a much more extreme reaction to a sudden clap of thunder than we do to loud noises we can predict, like the crowd reaction after the winning point at a basketball game.”
“In effect, you have to teach your brain that the sounds of tinnitus are not important, and that they can safely be ignored,” Sweetow says. “By removing fears and anxiety about tinnitus, stress levels are lowered, and the tinnitus patient usually has an easier time getting to sleep.”
Watch the video below as Dr. Robert Sweetow, Ph.D. from University of California, San Francisco, discusses his experiences in treating tinnitus.