Rethinking Tinnitus: When The Ringing Won't Stop, Clear Your Mind

Jul 18, 2011
Originally published on July 27, 2011 9:45 am

Silence is a beautiful thing. But Robert DeMong has accepted that he'll likely never experience it again.

He's got a condition called tinnitus, which means a ringing sound travels with him everywhere he goes, including to bed at night.

It came on suddenly about five years ago. And he says it threw him into depression. "It was like an ugly monster inside my head," recalls DeMong. "I couldn't sleep at night."

Now, DeMong says, he's left the anxiety and suffering behind.

He participated in a research study at the University of California, San Francisco, that tested the effectiveness of meditation — or mindfulness training — for tinnitus sufferers. Previous studies that tested Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, also known as MBSR, with arthritis patients and those living in chronic pain have documented significant improvements in people's quality of life.

As part of the tinnitus study, DeMong took an eight-week class modeled on MBSR, which taught him some simple techniques he now uses daily.

"We concentrated on breathing into the tinnitus, breathing into the ringing," DeMong says.

Slowly, he worked on acknowledging the sound sensation, instead of running from it — or trying to drown it out, which is how DeMong used to cope with the ringing in his ears.

"The ringing is still there," explains DeMong, but now he's got a new mantra: "Acknowledge it — and let it be."

Mindfulness practice, says lead researcher Jennifer Gans, a psychologist with UCSF's Medical Center, helps people separate the physical sensation of the ringing from all the anxiety, thoughts and emotions about the ringing. And this helps them heal.

"People see they have a choice in how they respond," Gans says.

She adds, "The subjects usually find, 'You know what? It isn't so bad and I can live through this in this moment.'"

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So static may help to drown out the annoyance of ringing in the ears, but it is not the only way that people are finding relief. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on how one researcher's own experience with meditation training has opened the way for an alternative treatment.

ALLISON AUBREY: If you've ever had moments in your life when you just feel stuck, well, Jennifer Gans feels your pain. She's a researcher at the University of California in San Francisco. And she recalls one night a few years back when she was trying to finish a proposal.

Ms. JENNIFER GANS: Well, I remember sitting in front of my computer and found myself going over things, over and over and over again, and getting myself worked up.

AUBREY: Looking back, Jennifer was just nervous. The next morning she was scheduled to pitch her project to the chair of her department. She wanted to study the effectiveness of meditation and mindfulness training - something she was experimenting with in her own life, for people with chronic ringing in the ears. She knew to get the study started, she'd not only needed approval, she also needed funding.

Looking to blow off some steam that night, she headed out to a museum to see a traveling exhibit on King Tut.

Ms. GANS: So I was just walking along with headphones on and I noticed that there was a man in front of me who just seemed to know everything there is about King Tut.

AUBREY: Now he wasnt a tour guide, he just seemed to be another visitor, albeit a really informed one, talking with a couple of friends.

Ms. GANS: And so I just took my earphones off and I started listening to him speak.

Mr. DOUG TILDEN: Oh, yes. Absolutely, I remember it.

AUBREY: That's Doug Tilden, the man from the museum who was doing all the talking.

Mr. TILDEN: Jennifer was sort of hanging on the end of our group listening to what I had to say. And then when I finished she stopped me, introduced herself, and asked me how come I knew so much about King Tut.

AUBREY: Tilden explained he was an archeology buff; it was a hobby for him, and he happened to be a patron of the exhibit, a lead sponsor.

So here's where the story takes a twist. Jennifer says, by introducing herself, she really just wanted to thank him for letting her tag along. But as the conversation carried on, Doug Tilden said to her well, Jennifer, what do you do?

Ms. GANS: And I said well, it's funny you ask, because tomorrow is a big day for me.

AUBREY: She explained her study on tinnitus or ringing in the ears.

Ms. GANS: And his mouth just dropped opened. And I said what?

AUBREY: Turns out Tilden has the condition. He has struggled with it for years. To make a long story short, he did some serious vetting of her project. He realized the meditation training she proposed didnt require people to escape to ashrams or live among monks. This was an eight-week class, adapted from mindfulness based stress reduction, or MBSR for short. It teaches simple techniques, such as using slow breathing to focus your attention.

A bunch of studies testing MBSR with arthritis patients and those living in chronic pain have documented significant improvements in people's quality of life. And Tilden was curious if the same might be true for people with tinnitus, so he wrote her a check to fund the study. How's that for a chance meeting?

Ms. GANS: It's amazing what it turned into.

AUBREY: One of the first patients Jennifer recruited into the study was Robert DeMong, a 65-year-old retired engineer who had learned to cope with the ringing in his ears by drowning it out with as many sounds as he could; wind, traffic, music, noise generators. So the idea of quiet silent meditation?

Mr. ROBERT DEMONG: I thought, Mmm. That's disastrous for me.

AUBREY: What he didnt realize at the time was that he could learn to accept the ring. Through a daily breathing exercise he learned in class, he worked on acknowledging the ring instead of running from it.

Mr. DEMONG: I began to get use to breathing into the tinnitus, breathing into the ringing, and I got use to it.

AUBREY: The ringing did not go away but he says his anxiety about the ringing did. He found himself repeating a daily mantra.

Mr. DEMONG: Acknowledge and let it be. Just acknowledge and let it be.

AUBREY: Jennifer Gans says she's finding that when people see they have a choice in how they react to the ringing, they tend to do better. They learn to separate the sensation of the sounds from all the emotions about it.

Ms. GANS: The subjects often find that, you know what? This is not so bad and I can live through this in this moment.

AUBREY: Now Gans says, the challenge is to keep up this practice, turning the mindfulness training of staying in the moment into a daily habit.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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