Stress and Tinnitus: Cause and Management

tinnitus patient woman de-stress with tea

Feb 01, 2021

It’s Tinnitus Awareness Week and this year, we explore the link between stress and tinnitus. Whether that’s work stress, emotional stress, anxiety or Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJ).

Due to the pandemic, we have all had to adapt with an ever changing landscape over the past year. We are all adapting and therefore may experience more stress than usual, and all this stress can take its toll on our health - in particular, our hearing. You are not alone: stress is behind 55% of all days off work in the UK and tinnitus affects 13.2% of the UK population - that’s around 7.1 million people.

Can stress cause tinnitus?

Stress affects our health in many ways and is the body's reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure. Usually, it’s when our resources do not match the demands made on us. Some hearing conditions, such as tinnitus, can be brought on by stress, injuries or neurological and metabolic disorders (like diabetes).

Many of us experience stress at work or from a busy family life and those environments are often noisy ones too. This is particularly prevalent at the moment, with additional worries about the pandemic and some of us are working from home and juggling a tricky work-life balance. Whilst others, like our wonderful key-workers, will be working tirelessly in high pressure environments like hospitals or busy warehouses.

Mind has reported an increase of 51% of adults saying their mental health has worsened over the pandemic.

Stress affects your hearing in many ways. Almost everything that restricts your circulation—heart disease, diabetes, smoking, fight or flight response—can negatively impact your hearing.

When you’re stressed, the extra adrenaline can decrease or stop circulation in the inner ear, damaging or even destroying the essential tiny hair cells inside of your ear. Once they're damaged these hair cells won't regenerate so this can lead to permanent hearing loss.

The exact cause of tinnitus is still not determined. However, tinnitus symptoms can occur for a number of reasons, including stress, loud noises and ear wax blockages (rock stars including Phil Collins and Pete Townshend famously experience long-term tinnitus).

Minimising stress can help reduce the physical impact on your hearing ability.

Can tinnitus seem “louder” or get worse through stress?

According to the Dallas Ear Institute, tinnitus can initiate our “flight or fight” response, common in people experiencing stress. “When your brain categorizes tinnitus as a possible threat, it can trigger increased heart rate, shortness of breath, and sleeplessness. This makes it very difficult to concentrate or relax when you have tinnitus.”

Imagine completing usual tasks, such as reading a newspaper or driving a car, when you have an insistent internal sound in your ears! The most common symptoms are humming, buzzing or ringing but some people even hear music.

Studies have shown stress and tinnitus to appear inextricably linked. Tinnitus can cause stress and anxiety levels to rise, which in turn increases the symptoms of the condition. Making it seem “louder” or worse for some patients when experiencing stress.

Can stress mimic the symptoms of tinnitus?

You may have heard someone, who experiences stress and anxiety, describe it as “noise”; when you have so many thoughts competing for attention in your head, it can be exhausting and feel noisy. But can stress actually mimic the symptoms of tinnitus itself?

Stress is a candidate for causing increased sound and light sensitivity. If you're emotionally exhausted from work, from taking care of children and family, lack of sleep, or any combination of these circumstances; pay attention to changes in your hearing. It may be that you feel sensitive to sounds, especially if these combined stresses are causing you headaches, it may feel more like tinnitus.

Stress and its link to hearing isn’t all about the mind either. As we saw with conditions like heart disease, smoking and diabetes; physical symptoms such as poor circulation can promote hearing loss. Studies have also found a link between poor circulation and pulsatile tinnitus, a condition patients often describe as a rhythmic ear noise that “pulsates, beats or pumps in time with the heartbeat”.

If you experience any of these, we recommend booking an appointment and seeing one of our Hearing Care Partnership audiologists for expert hearing care advice.

What does the road to recovery look like for stress related tinnitus?

Although there is no definitive cure or way to stop tinnitus completely, there are several methods that can be used to manage it. Our expert audiologists can provide tinnitus therapy as well as other management methods to help the condition. There are three key methods to managing tinnitus: stress management, hearing protection and hearing aids.

Stress Management

Stress management is very important when treating tinnitus. Make sure to have a good sleep hygiene routine (remove technology before going to bed, turn off any lights in the room), take time for self care and eat a healthy and balanced diet. These are just some examples of things that can help.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) may also be a good option for you. It focuses on reducing stress levels associated with tinnitus that can exacerbate the condition. As you begin to control the negative feelings, tinnitus can become less noticeable. You can speak to your doctor about requesting therapy on the NHS or look up private counsellors in your area.

If you find that your tinnitus is particularly affected at work, you may want to look at reducing work stress as well. This could be by managing your time and workload better or by reducing the noise in the workplace itself.

Hearing Protection

If you have a particularly loud workplace such as a concert venue or a building site, we recommend looking at ways to reduce this noise exposure.

Your workplace should be able to make suitable adjustments to look after your hearing. For example, purchasing protective equipment such as ear defenders or scheduling in quiet periods where possible.

Equally, if you enjoy loud hobbies such as shooting or performing music, we recommend looking into ways to protect your hearing such as ear plugs.

At The Hearing Care Partnership, we offer custom hearing protection from basic ear plugs to custom-moulded specialist products for music, shooting, motor sports, water sports and much more. Just speak to one of our experienced audiologists about your requirements.

Hearing Aids and tinnitus

Hearing aids may also provide treatment to manage your tinnitus. They can help decrease the effect of tinnitus by masking the sound with white noise or helping your brain focus on the sounds you want to tune into, instead of the constant ringing or buzzing. Our audiologists are here to help you find a bespoke solution that works for you.

Book an appointment

Our tinnitus consultations are FREE and we are able to offer remote care during this time, with the safety of you and our staff as our top priority. Book online or by calling us on 0800 52 00 546.

See more about what our Tinnitus Consultations can offer you.