Depression from Tinnitus: Discussion & Options

Have you been feeling hopeless or depressed about your tinnitus? Living with ringing in your ears takes courage, whether you’ve had it for one day or five years.

My name is Dr. Ben Thompson. I’m a tinnitus specialist and audiologist in California. I hear from many of my patients that they went to their doctor, either primary care or an ENT specialist, and the doctor said, “You have ringing in your ears, and it looks like there’s nothing we can do for you.”

What they’re really saying is, there’s no pill or surgery to make your tinnitus go away. At that point, the natural response is to panic. “What do you mean, there’s nothing I can do? I don’t like this. I don’t want this here. I’m just supposed to live with it?”

The reality is that many doctors have never been fully educated about the relationship between the auditory brain and the emotional brain. So when a doctor says “There’s nothing we can do about the ringing in your ears,” they’re talking about curing it, giving you a pill, or doing a surgery. And that’s true. There’s no pill or surgery that gets rid of most kinds of tinnitus.

Dr. Ben Thompson made this video about tinnitus and depression.

What Can I Do To Help Tinnitus?

We’re here today to focus on what you can do, even if it can’t be cured.

Tinnitus can cause depression, or make depression and anxiety symptoms worse.  Now, I know what it’s like to live with a permanent health condition, and it’s tough. There are stages of acceptance that we all have to go through. The first stages are the hardest ones, and there’s no definitive amount of time that it takes to go through each stage.

It’s hard for me to tell you this, but the reality is that your tinnitus may be there forever. It may never permanently go back to silence. Learning to accept the reality that tinnitus usually does not go completely away is important. What you need to know is that within the space between “My tinnitus will go away” and “My tinnitus is so bad that I’m depressed and can’t live with it”, there’s so much room. How you navigate that space will determine your quality of life related to your tinnitus.

I see this all the time in my clinic, with patients who come in suffering from bothersome tinnitus. They describe how they’re depressed, they’re sad. They don’t know what to do with their lives anymore, because it’s changed so much. And during the process of our sessions, we watch them evolve in their stages of acceptance, until they reach a point where they can be honest with themselves and say,

“Okay, I know that my tinnitus likely isn’t going to go away. [Breathe]. So what can I do about it? What can I do right here in this moment, what can I do in the next days or weeks, to make a positive change to my life that’s consistent with my values?”

If you can reach that stage, that’s going to have a big impact on your stress and possible depression from tinnitus. That is when the individual takes ownership of what they can’t change, accepts it, and learns how to navigate the world with tinnitus. Ultimately, this significantly improves their quality of life, because they’ve committed to that path.

In everyone’s mind, there’s this process of negative thinking. And it’s a powerful process. So if you can start to understand how your own mind has patterns of negative thinking, that’s going to be a big step forward on your path of taking control back from your tinnitus.

Tinnitus and The Brain

In our hearing system, we get the signal which creates tinnitus, and that’s in the auditory brain. That auditory brain is connected to parts of our emotional brain, our limbic system. And you don’t need to understand brain science to understand that when the ringing in your ears sends a signal to the emotional brain, the limbic system, the emotional brain creates this heightened response, because it doesn’t know what it is. It’s fear of a stimulus. It’s fear of something outside of our own selves coming into our environment.

So, is the ringing sound something dangerous? Not really. That sound is just a response from your physical body designed for you to pay attention to. What’s really powerful is when your emotional brain sends a signal back to your auditory system, saying “Yeah, I don’t know what that sound is, we need to amplify it because we really need to pay attention to this.” And then that same signal goes back into the emotional brain: “Oh, this is much louder. Now I’m more stressed about it. I have a feeling I should be upset about this.”

That’s called a feedback loop. One signal impacts the other, which makes the ringing get louder and louder, which makes you feel more and more anxious or uncomfortable with the situation.

I strongly encourage you to consider how this feedback loop affects either your tinnitus, or some other facet of your own life that’s related to stress, anxiety or depression. Consider working with a talk therapist, a wellness coach, or a tinnitus specialist like myself, if you’re looking for more direct guidance on how your emotional brain is connected to your auditory system, and what you can do about it.

Depression and Tinnitus

So when you’re facing sadness in your life, when you’re feeling depressed because you have tinnitus, and you wish it would go away but it won’t, take a step back and think. What control do you have over this situation? Could taking direct action improve anything? Hopefully, you’re here to learn how to do just that.

Think about taking a positive action step. On one side of the spectrum we can ask ourselves, “What would be the best-case scenario if I make this change?” And on the other side, we have “What would be the worst-case scenario?”

Well, oftentimes going and trying something to improve our situation will pave the way for positive change, even if it doesn’t happen right away. And what if it doesn’t? The worst-case scenario isn’t much different than where you are right now. Unless we’re making positive changes, we’re not going to see improvement.

Through this journey of tinnitus, you’re going to grow a lot and learn a lot about yourself. I’m confident that if you have the motivation to learn about your tinnitus, the right guidance to understand how to balance your emotional brain and your auditory system, and if you can take direct action in your daily life that’s consistent with your values, that you will see a significant improvement in your tinnitus.

I see it all the time with my patients, and I’m here to tell you that it’s possible.

I also recommend that if you’ve often felt down, sad, or depressed over the past month, you should consider working with a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist, because you may have clinical depression. That is something that you can significantly improve with therapy.

And as always, remember to take your journey one step at a time.

Make sure to download the free tinnitus guide, which you can access by clicking here.

Dr. Ben Thompson, Au.D.

Dr. Ben Thompson, Au.D.

Dr. Ben Thompson is an audiologist in California and founder of Pure Tinnitus. Dr. Thompson has a comprehensive knowledge of tinnitus management. He completed his residency at University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) and is a past board member of the California Academy of Audiology. Via telehealth, Dr. Thompson provides services to patients with hearing loss and tinnitus.

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