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The Zen of Tinnitus Acceptance

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In the 1980s I absolutely loved punk rock. I lived in Greensboro, N.C. and struggling punker bands traveling from Atlanta to D.C. for weekend gigs would unload their equipment-filled vans into tiny bars for mid-week performances to pay for gas money for the trip. I would move toward the stage to listen to the raging of tatted, bare-chested men, roaring like aircraft engines, their words almost impossible to decipher. You didn't need to. You didn't listen to this music. You felt it.

Now in my late '60s guess what I get?

Can you say "tinnitus"?

When it first showed up a decade or so ago I began wearing earplugs, closing doors quietly, and avoiding loud noises in the hopes that at least I could prevent further damage and perhaps turn down the volume a bit. It didn't work. The stuff the audiologists suggested didn't work either. Every time I checked, there it was, shrieking back at me. Over a couple of years time period it gradually drove me absolutely crazy. How anyone could put up with this constant, constant, constant noise! For a lifetime! Are you kidding me?! A lifetime!

Finally a voice within explained that I had an alternative.

"I should just shoot myself," came the voice. "That will stop the noise."

"Ah, dude," came a wiser voice, after a brief pause. "That is a suicidal thought."

Then -- after years of struggle -- a brilliant and highly creative (not) thought occurred to me. "Uhh, maybe you should apply your life's work to it."

Doh! What an idiot I am! Of course!

I sat right down and over the next hour I did exactly that. I applied the "turning toward" moves of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and its psychological flexibility model (my TEDx explains the basic moves: http://bit.ly/StevesFirstTED [link is external]). By the next morning the "problem" of tinnitus was in the low range. In few days, the distress and interference from ringing in my ears was at zero, where it has remained in the several years since.

Yes, I still have tinnitus (it gets slightly louder every year). But no, it does not bother me. Not the least little bit. Here's why: I don't give a damn and you can't make me! Ha, ha, ha!

Please understand me: I'm not TRYING not to care so the noise will go away. That would be a form of caring and it would give it attention that would feed the beast. No, I don't care if it goes away or not. I respectfully decline my mind's invitation to see noise or no noise or loud noise or soft noise as meaningful one way or the other.

Can you actually do that?! Sure you can! It's not suppression. It is the simple absence of attention and interest. It has no end in mind. No goals beyond the now. I'm just done. If it rings it rings.

Usually acceptance has a softer feel that this, because there are many things to learn inside painful emotions or sensations. Tinnitus acceptance has a "relinquish caring" feel because there is nothing much left to learn except "that was dumb" and "tell your kids to turn down the smartphone volume." OK. Got it.

So now there are randomized control trials on ACT for tinnitus, there are measures of acceptance of tinnitus, there are studies of how acceptance plays out with tinnitus. I've done a few of them but Sweden's Gerhard Andersson is the world's expert (in fact my work on tinnitus was done with him).

Turns out it wasn't just me. Here is a new study from his lab showing what happens when people profoundly accept the ringing: http://bit.ly/Accept_the_Ringing (link is external).

It shows the same thing. Acceptance of the noise explains the relationship of self-rated loudness to tinnitus severity, even after taking into account anxiety and depression symptoms.

Cool, huh?

It is too bad it took years for it to occur to me, but I'm grateful that it finally did. I'm blogging on it here so that it will occur to others. There is an answer -- it's just in the opposite direction of what your mind is telling you to do.