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Learning to Cope with Tinnitus using Stoicism and Mindfulness

While surfing the net, I stumbled across a brilliant article by Denis Watkins called “Stoicism and Tinnitus“. Denis was kind enough to be interviewed and answered some questions in great depth.

I highly recommend reading to the end!


1. Hi Denis, tell us a bit about your condition. How long have you had tinnitus? What symptoms have you been getting? Is the sound you hear there all the time, or is it intermittent?

I have had tinnitus for 24 years. My symptom is a piercing whine which comes from above my left ear. The sound is always there. I can now ignore it for long periods but it clicks back in when my attention returns to it.

2. How did you actually develop tinnitus in the first place? Has anything in particular triggered it? Can you tell (or guess) what the underlying cause is?

I awoke early one morning and it was there. I knew nothing about tinnitus at the time and at first I thought I had a brain tumour. I told my wife was a GP at the time and she said it seemed like tinnitus. She advised me to see my GP for further checks. We speculated on its cause. I was in the Royal Artillery a long time ago and we were often firing guns with no ear protection. I wondered if that had caused the initial damage but it seems unlikely. I had a high stress job and I wondered if that might have contributed. I cannot identify an underlying cause.

3. How did it use to affect your day-to-day life when it started? What impact has it had on you in the past?

When it started the impact on my life was catastrophic. I had just taken early retirement and I was at home with this piercing whine which never left me. I couldn’t sleep until exhaustion overtook me. When I was with my family, on the first Christmas with tinnitus, I felt alienated from them by the hellish sound that I could not escape. I felt persecuted and panic stricken. Any kind of even moderately happy life seemed to be permanently denied to me.

4. Have you had somebody to diagnose it? Have you been to see a GP, audiologist, or any traditional health care providers about it? What treatment did they offer?

My GP didn’t seem much help and my wife suggested I see an audiologist with a reputation for expertise in tinnitus. I did so and he suggested I listen to various sounds playing like the sound of waves. He thought this would help me sleep. I tried various sounds but they didn’t help. I also bought various devices to fit over my ears. They didn’t help either. I discovered much later that having sound in the background helps as, in silence, tinnitus kicks in. I usually have classical music playing e.g. Mozart, Beethoven etc. I did some research and I came across various people who promised to be able to cure tinnitus. I concluded that they were charlatans. I didn’t try anyone else. Talking with my wife was the best help I got as she was endlessly tolerant and supportive.

5. Have you tried any alternative treatments, dietary/lifestyle changes, or treatments not offered by traditional health care providers? Have you had any success with of them?

I tried Ginseng some years ago. It didn’t help. have not tried alternative treatments but I have concluded that keeping active and fit and not putting on weight is worth the effort and has a generally positive effect on my feelings. For many years I have worn a pedometer and I do 10,000 plus steps a day and rarely miss that number. My Labrador provides an incentive to walk. I have never smoked. I find that alcohol makes my tinnitus worse so, apart from a glass of wine on special occasions, I avoid it.

6. Have you sought counseling or therapy? In particular, have you looked into sound therapy, tinnitus retraining therapy, or cognitive behavioral therapy? Did any of them help?

I have found the tinnitus magazine QUIET helpful. I have not sought counselling. I have heard of tinnitus retraining therapy but have not tried it. I have found cognitive behavioural therapy effective. More recently I have been helped by Mindfulness practice. ZEN and its approach to the “illusion of the self” and much else has also been helpful. But the big breakthrough for me was becoming absorbed in Stoicism and especially Epictetus.

7. How did you eventually start to cope with it? Do you manage it better now than when it first started? What impact does tinnitus have on you today?

I think becoming immersed in Stoicism was the biggest step forward for me. However, CBT, Mindfulness, ZEN are also a regular part of my reading. The biggest practical factor in helping me cope is my wife. She knows my problems and, for example, when our family are here she still makes sure I have a means of having a short undisturbed sleep during the day. I cannot avoid the impact tinnitus has on me today but, compared to the trauma of the past, it is minimal. My sleep is still disturbed but I know I can make it up during the day. Best of all, and depending on what I am doing, most of a day can go past without me noticing I have tinnitus.

8. These days, what do you do to manage your tinnitus? What do you do when it gets particularly bad?

I keep active and involved with whatever interests me. I like reading, including in the Welsh language, which is a challenge. In a way I cannot explain just walking in the hills and woods and watching my dog run around “loses” my tinnitus. It is also possible to walk “mindfully.” When it gets to me I remind myself about so many people who have far more to cope with than I do. I am lucky in so many ways.

9. Do you believe there’s a single “silver bullet” cure for tinnitus? Do you believe there will ever be one?

I don’t think there is a “silver bullet” cure. However, I think there could be in the future as research continues into the condition.

10. Anything else you’d like to tell us that we might have left out?

The following additional comments might be helpful. They are based on my own experience and circumstances. What hinders or helps me may be different for others. At the same time I think there are core approaches which can help anyone if they can put them into practice.

What did not help

1. One of the most destructive experiences for those who discover they have tinnitus is to be given negative advice. I went to my doctor expecting help. I was told that I had an incurable condition. I would just have to put up with it. I returned home in despair. The doctor could have said that the condition was common and distressing but many have learned to deal with it and there are ways of doing so. I would have left him with a feeling of hope instead of despair.

2. I was told that if I attended a group of people with tinnitus they would help me deal with it. That evening was a disaster for me. The meeting was spent by listening to the woes of those present. They complained about partners who didn’t understand; about being unable to sleep; about not being able to concentrate on work and about their lives being ruined. I never went back. At the end I was told about a group of their partners, who did not have tinnitus, and they said my wife could attend. She never did. This experience is personal. Others may have better ones.

3. I discovered, in my desperate early days, that a large glass of whisky blunted the sound and offered relief. I began drinking a large glass of whisky before I went to sleep and that helped. However, I found that the relief was temporary and when I awoke in the middle of the night I could not get to sleep again. I was left feeling depressed. I stopped drinking.

4. Again, in my early days of desperation, I discovered that by holding my electric razor to my ear that blotted out the high pitched whine of tinnitus and replaced it with the sound of the razor. That could only be a temporary and unsatisfactory “solution.” I recall this to show my desperation. I was at a very low point.

What helped.

1. I met a psychologist who had tinnitus himself. His words are fixed in my memory. He said, “At the moment you will not believe this. But tinnitus is no big deal. You can learn to deal with it.” He gave me a leaflet which I found invaluable. I memorised parts of it. Many years ago I loaned it to someone else who never returned it. Reading the leaflet was a big help to me.

2. At this time I began reading the Stoics. This was a major step for me as I became absorbed in Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius. I found Admiral James B. Stockdale’s description of his use of Epictetus (parts of which he had memorised) during seven harsh years as a prisoner of war a compelling and persuasive short exposition of the practical use of Stoicism. I also find CBT, Zen and Mindfulness helpful. I’m eclectic. If I find anything that helps then I use it.

3. I asked my wife to tell my children never to mention tinnitus to me. They had often enquired about it which I found reminded me I had it when I was coping and forgetting that it was present. I dis;liked the thought of burdening my family with my tinnitus as I know happens in some families.

4. I have a supportive wife. We decided I would sleep in a separate bedroom. This meant that when I awoke in the night – far more frequently in the early days – I could listen to the radio (World Service) without disturbing her. This removed the pressure and anxiety of trying to lie quietly and made the nights far more manageable.

5. I am retired and have the freedom to organise my days. When I lose sleep in the night I can sleep during the day – usually 20 minutes or so is enough. This removes concern about lack of sleep in the night.

6. I started to use a deflection technique to get my mind absorbed in a book or subject. I began to realise that if I became interested in something my tinnitus would not trouble me for short periods. I concluded that I should be able to extend these times. This worked well. I can choose a novel which absorbs me. I find biographies or adventure stories work well for me. I am currently reading my way through Wilbur Smith’s books. I started to learn the Welsh language and this is demanding and requires concentration. Reading a novel in Welsh leaves little “space” for tinnitus. Other deflections: sea kayaking in summer, walking my dog in the nearby hills and woods, time with my grand children, some TV programmes.

Concluding comments

Tinnitus is a personal condition. Someone who has not got it is unlikely to understand its effects. It also varies in severity. Dealing with it effectively has to be based on the individual’s specific tinnitus. Furthermore, dealing with the condition has to take account of the individual’s circumstances: emotional resilience, family support, education and interests. I realised this when I became excited about my progress from studying the Stoics. I loaned one of my Stoic books to an acquaintance and he said he couldn’t understand the book and had no idea why I found it so helpful. I learned that he never read books and had expected a superficial browse to produce an immediate improvement.

I also learned that merely reading a book – on Stoicism for example – will not help. The ideas and suggestions have to be absorbed and put into practice. My books are covered with underlining and notes in the margins. I read them over and over. At first I thought they could not help me because of the nature of tinnitus. Unlike the pain in a limb, tinnitus was in my head and I thought that it could not be reached. I was wrong. With various techniques such as learning to relax, losing the fear of it and deflecting my attention good results can be obtained. I go though most of the day forgetting that I have it. I do find the nights more difficult.

I realised that tinnitus was a problem which I was struggling to manage. However, I began to understand that the problem was being increased by my anxieties. I then had two problems: the tinnitus and my fears about it. Now that I have lost the fear I have only one problem and life is so much easier. The mind and the attitudes one can develop can be a powerful ally.

I think we all have to find our own way in dealing with tinnitus. And that can be done by finding methods which arise out of our particular lives. There is even a benefit from tinnitus in that I became far less concerned about the irritations and problems which are common to us all. I decided that if I could cope with tinnitus I could manage positively most of life’s problems.

I think those of us who have tinnitus all have something to share and contribute. What I want to contribute is my knowledge that tinnitus need not ruin a life. To a very large extent it can be overcome.