The brains, they are a-changin’. Which is a bit odd if you think about it. We’re used to thinking of ourselves–brains included–as rather static. Motionless. The same, day in and day out.
But your brain has an amazing capacity to change and adapt, both mentally and physically, for good and ill. The development of conditions like tinnitus, for example, can have long-term effects on your brain and, therefore, on your mental health.
What does tinnitus have to do with my brain?
Tinnitus is a condition in which you hear sounds that aren’t there. Typically, what you hear is a buzzing or ringing, but tinnitus-caused sounds could also take the form of clicking or whooshing–there are plenty of varieties, let’s just put it that way.
First and foremost, tinnitus is a hearing condition and is often experienced by people who also have hearing loss. But that’s not exclusively the case. There are several underlying issues that could cause tinnitus. There’s Meniere’s Disease, ear infections, traumatic brain injuries, ear trauma–you get the idea.
At first glance, then, you might assume that tinnitus is strictly an ear issue. It’s true that the ear is often where the root problem will be located. But the work of interpreting sounds is done by your good old brain. So maybe it’s not all that surprising that research suggests that tinnitus seems to have a direct impact on your brain.
What are you paying attention to?
And now you want to know precisely how tinnitus is going to impact your brain. Tinnitus has repercussions for your brain because your brain is wired to pay attention to sounds.
When your tinnitus acts up, your brain goes into a heightened state. It’s looking for the source of that sound. Your brain wants to know whether that source is a danger or not (and it’s going to be cautious until it can make a determination).
In short bursts, this heightened status can be quite good for you. If you heard noises in the woods, you’d be on alert. Is it a squirrel or a bear? Until you see that squirrel, you’ll probably assume bear, right? (You don’t want a bear to sneak up on you is what we’re getting at.) Better to be vigilant than surprised, your brain assumes.
That’s basically what your brain is doing constantly while your tinnitus symptoms are present. In cases of chronic tinnitus, this can lead to severe mental fatigue. Your brain is trying to pinpoint this sound nearly every second of every day, and because that’s happening, your mind isn’t able to slip into a quiet (and restful) “default mode.”
Over time, this mental fatigue can cause other issues and even rewire the way certain parts of your brain network.
How do you help your brain relax?
If your brain is stuck in a kind of heightened state because of your tinnitus, there are two paths you might elect to follow. The first is to try to force your brain to relax no matter what it’s hearing. The second is to treat the underlying issue behind tinnitus.
While the underlying causes of tinnitus are generally not well understood, in some cases, tinnitus can be managed. If your tinnitus is caused by, for example, sensorineural hearing loss, hearing aids can help. Other treatments tend to focus on ways to train your brain to block out or ignore the buzzing or ringing (or whatever else) you might be hearing.
Relaxation techniques might prove useful in the long run as well. Many people find success with yoga and meditation. Your hearing specialist may also be able to recommend certain therapies or behaviors that can help you tune out tinnitus-related sounds and get your brain to calm down.
The link between hearing and cognition
The link between tinnitus and your awareness is not the only way in which your hearing and your mind are inextricably linked. The connection between hearing and cognition has been well established, even if the cause-and-effect relationships remain a little murky.
Treating hearing loss or tinnitus is a way not only to safeguard your ability to hear but also your mental health. An alert brain is fine–but an exhausted brain is probably something you’d like to avoid. Understanding how tinnitus affects your brain can help improve the health of both your ears and your mind.