How to Heal Tinnitus: Use Neuroplasticity (Part I)

Neuroplasticity can help tinnitus. The essentials of neuroplasticity are not as foreign or scientific as you think. In this video, we break down the fundamentals of neuroplasticity and how it can improve the psychological, auditory, and lifestyle outcomes of someone with loud tinnitus.

Can Neuroplasticity Cure Tinnitus?

Neuroplasticity is an important concept to understand if you have tinnitus, so this is going to be part one of a multi-part series. Today we’re going to talk about what neuroplasticity  means and who is affected by it.

Neuroplasticity sounds like a fancy word, right? It comes from the root “neuro”, the same root from which we get “neurons”, “neural”, and the “nervous” system. It’s a fairly complex topic, but today we’ll break it down into a simple, fun presentation, so that you can take away some key points related to neuroplasticity that you can use in your everyday life.

So why does it matter? Why are we learning this framework of neuroplasticity? We’re going to learn this for a few reasons, but mainly, it matters because it helps us to understand exactly how we got into having bothersome tinnitus and how we’re going to get out of it. Neuroplasticity works both ways, as we’re going to explain.

Finally, what help is neuroplasticity for tinnitus? That’s the golden question. That’s why we’re talking about it, because I know it can help. For those of us who have overcome tinnitus, our neuroplasticity has been an important factor. Those four pieces are what we’re going to cover today, so let’s get into it.

Dr. Thompson’s video about neuroplasticity for tinnitus.

Can Neuroplasticity Help Tinnitus?

Neuroplasticity is related to our brain and our nervous system. A quote by Santiago Ramón y Cajal says, “Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain.” Years ago, it was thought that the human brain could only be changed during childhood. Once a person passed a certain age, the brain and its hardware were pretty much set, and there wasn’t much change you could do to the software. However, as neuroscience has become more studied, especially in the last two decades or so since the year 2000, we’ve started to learn more and more about the plasticity of our brain. Specifically, we’ve learned that when we practice certain techniques, our brain, its neurological structures and all of its connections–all the neurons, all the pathways–can change a lot more rapidly and successfully than we previously believe

So this quote is important because it’s true. If you are inclined–if you choose to do so and you are guided as to how–you can sculpt your own brain, in the sense that you can create your own story. You can write a new chapter about your tinnitus. You have some control over how you spend your time, how you think and how you react, and that will have an effect on the auditory brain, which is part of the source of tinnitus. I put this quote in here because I know it’s really powerful, and it’s going to help you out.

Number one, who is affected by neuroplasticity? Individuals with tinnitus are definitely affected by it, but so is everyone else. As we just discussed, no matter what age we are, when we have experiences in life, they have an effect on our brain chemistry and our memory, and that affects our behaviors and actions. It also affects our psychology and how we think. So if you have tinnitus, you have been affected by your auditory nervous system and the auditory structures of your brain have gone through some changes.

As we discussed before, “neuro” relates to the nervous system. When we use the term “plasticity”, we’re essentially referring to changes. When I think of plastic, sometimes I think of a hard plastic bottle. But of course, that same plastic can be melted, shapeshifted, and molded into any form. That’s why we use plastic, because it can take any shape or hold any amount that we want, like a plastic water bottle. Similarly, our brains can change. They can be molded based on the structure, message or framework of the techniques or guidance that we’re following.

What Is Neuroplasticity For Tinnitus?

Neuroplasticity is an important aspect of the brain that you need to understand. It refers to changes in the interconnecting networks of neurons, or brain cells. Now, a neuron is very, very small. In one part of the brain, let’s say the auditory brain, there are many billions of neurons, and they can connect to each other. You can think of this analogy: one neuron is like one person. Each person has different friends, different relationships, different routes we take to get to work. Although the neuron itself isn’t moving, it does have these electrical connections in our brain that can attach it to many others. So it’s like me–I have my family, friends, people I see around town, and that’s my network. And if I maintain and deepen my relationships with certain people, or if I take the same route to work every day, then I’m going to be strengthening those pathways.

Similarly, when our brain structures react to stimuli in certain patterns, and those patterns are reinforced over and over again, those networks become stronger. I can go to work with my eyes half open, because I know the route so well that I don’t have to pay attention. When certain behaviors are ingrained in us, they become second nature, and we don’t have to work so hard to make them happen.

Now, that can be used as a good thing or a bad thing. Harmful neuroplasticity is something that we don’t want. It can often be related to negative thinking patterns. “Oh, I can’t do that. I’m not beautiful enough. I don’t think I’m going to succeed in that. I’m afraid to go out there. I’m scared, I don’t think I can do it. I’m not smart enough, I’m not worthy enough.” Those are examples of negative thinking patterns. If we keep telling ourselves these things and keep playing that movie in our mind, those neural pathways and structures get steadily stronger. We’re molding our brain to this way of thinking, and it just keeps getting reinforced.

Negative self-talk is another common example of harmful neuroplasticity. If I keep putting myself down, then my nervous system, brain and body keep the message going that I’m not worthy, I’m not good enough, I could never be what other people are. This can limit our participation. Then, if I don’t show up to my exercise group, or my sports team, or go on a walk with my friend, that triggers another negative neuroplastic response in my brain, where I’m getting more comfortable resting in my bad habits. My higher self knows that these habits aren’t actually good for me. But by repeating them, I’m giving the response to my brain that this is actually what I want to do. Over time, the brain gets more and more comfortable with these habits, and it can be harder and harder to break out of them.

Harmful neuroplasticity can also happen when there’s deprivation of sensory input. Think about how most people who have tinnitus have had deprivation of sensory input. Maybe they had prolonged or sudden loud noise exposure in their ears. Then, when they are potentially having difficulty hearing, or even slight changes to the auditory organ, the cochlea, this can create a perception of ringing in the auditory brain. When there is a lack of input, even a little lack of high pitch input into the auditory brain, that part of the auditory brain creates the tinnitus. As this lack of input continues, the high-pitched, soft ringing sometimes becomes loud, higher-pitched ringing, buzzing, roaring, etc. Those are examples of harmful neuroplasticity for tinnitus.

Neuroplasticity Training For Tinnitus

On the other side of this, beneficial neuroplasticity can happen when we take positive action: when we’re doing things that are in line with our highest self, in line with how we want to live and what we know we’re capable of doing. This can be related to exercise, relationships, work habits, sleep habits, diet, etc. A lot of times, we can use this beneficial neuroplasticity to our advantage to break bad habits. Another way to say this is that we’re creating better habits, creating a more positive lifestyle and a more positive quality of life, just so I’m making sense to you. Because when I started learning about this, I said, “Yeah, this is exactly how I’ve been improving my life sometimes, and this is exactly what happens to me when I go down roads of negative thinking or negative self-talk. This is a neurological change and I am the sculptor. I can make these adjustments, I can have some control over this.” That’s pretty powerful, right? So remember that.

Another example of beneficial neuroplasticity is learning, whether it’s learning a language or a subject material. When I went through the many difficult years of my audiology doctoral program, there was a lot of learning: a lot of step by step, piece by piece learning of new information, then integrating it, learning in new ways, writing it, speaking it, listening to it, taking time to integrate it again, doing a test for it. Those are all different ways of learning a positive skill, and it involves neuroplasticity, the adaptation of our neurons. The more we practice, the stronger the network gets.

This relates to meditation too, as well as new skills. Some new skills that I would like to invite into this conversation would be learning an instrument or learning a new language. Those are examples of beneficial neuroplasticity. As for meditation, a lot of us in this community have practiced it, and I strongly encourage that. Meditation has positive beneficial effects for neuroplasticity. I look at it as a reset of the neurological system, to take all of the excited neurons and thoughts and bring it all together into a more calm, grounded, centered self.

So why does neuroplasticity for tinnitus matter? Neuroplasticity matters because it was involved in causing the tinnitus; it’s what originally created our difficult, negative response to it. I’m sure a lot of you have had a negative response to your tinnitus, and for obvious reasons. It’s loud, it’s annoying, and we don’t want it there. But that negative thinking or negative self-talk is an example of how harmful neuroplasticity can make the tinnitus worse. When we label the tinnitus as bad, harmful, or the reason why we can’t be happy, which I’ve heard from a lot of people, we’re strengthening those negative networks and pathways in our brain. We’re reinforcing them, and that makes it challenging later to put them aside. But, as I see all the time, you can totally do it. That’s why we’re learning about neuroplasticity for tinnitus, because by learning how we may have gone through the harmful side to get to the place of needing help, we’re also going to learn how to use beneficial neuroplasticity to get us back to our center, back to that place of joy and peace.

So, step one of how this happened. The methodology is that there was some sensory deprivation from the auditory organ, the cochlea, into the auditory brain, step two, and that created the tinnitus itself. Step three, the unfamiliar noise in your body sends a signal to the emotional brain to be on high alert, to check this out. This creates a lot of valid questions about what is happening, what that noise means. We want to figure it out, because it’s different and we need to understand it. So the emotional brain begins to create stories. If those are negative, then the more time we spend walking down that path of negative thinking or challenging reactions to the loud tinnitus, the more it becomes second nature and ingrained in who we are.

The next step of this methodology is that the negative thinking from the emotional brain has a significant effect on our nervous system, and this can put us in a state of high alert. Often this is subconscious. We’re not choosing to be on high alert, we’re not choosing to feel stressed or anxious. However, based on this methodology and neuroplasticity in general, it’s almost inevitable when you have a negative response and you feel threatened by the tinnitus. The longer you feel this way, the more it gets ingrained, and as a result your nervous system is going to continue going on higher alert. So that’s the last step of this methodology.

How Does Neuroplasticity Work For Tinnitus?

All right, number four for today. How can neuroplasticity help you? There’s a lot of research about neuroplasticity and brain science, especially in the last 20 years, and it’s quite fascinating. So I am going to guide you, to make sure we use neuroplasticity for tinnitus as a beneficial method, in a way that’s been proven to work. We’re going to focus on our mindset, our thoughts and beliefs and how they affect the neurological pathways in our brain, because that has a relationship with the tinnitus itself.

As I mentioned, meditation is one tool that research points to as a great way to relax ourselves, to get us out of these harmful neurological pathways and into a calm, more relaxed self. An analogy for meditation is that it tunes the brain like an instrument. For example, I played the saxophone. And I knew that if my mouthpiece was off, even just one centimeter, I could play the keys right but it didn’t sound good. So I needed to tune it. Same thing with playing a guitar. Someone who’s a great guitar player can try their best, and play the guitar with great skill. But if the strings are out of tune, it’s going to sound very bad. So meditation is one tool to tune the instrument of our brain, to tune our mind. Then we can play the instrument: we can live, we can take actions that have the highest effect. Our efficient actions come when we take care of our bodies and our health, and considering meditation is a way to do that.

Another way to increase health and energy is through exercise. We’ll touch on this next time, here together, and share plenty of resources about diet and exercise related to health and energy. Another way we’ll discuss neuroplasticity is as it relates to sound therapy, and how introducing sound into your ear or from your environment can affect the auditory neural response in your brain. We’ll dive into how you can consider using sound therapy to gain a positive neuroplastic response in the structure of your auditory brain.

Join For Part II of This Neuroplasticity Tinnitus Article Series

So I say again, “Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain.” Take a moment and read that to yourself. Read it back. It implies that we have power in our actions. We have power in how much value we give to our thoughts. We have more power than we realize, and a lot depends on how much of that power we give to our negative reactions, our negative thoughts about pain and suffering, and our feelings of victimhood because we have tinnitus or other difficult life situations.

So do you believe that you can use neuroplasticity for tinnitus to improve your life? Do you believe that you can use these techniques and the power of the science behind the auditory reaction? Do you believe you can make some positive progress with your tinnitus? This response should be yes, because I know that you can.

To learn what may help you manage your tinnitus, please download our free 10-page e-book, The Ultimate Guide to Tinnitus Relief. Dr. Thompson also offers online Tinnitus Retraining Therapy with Pure Tinnitus.

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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