May is National Meditation Month, inspiring us to use the power of our mind to change the inner workings of the brain. In fact, this is just what meditation does. Scientific inquiry has brought mindfulness meditation, a 3,500-year-old practice, to chronic physical problems. The very parts of the brain that are strengthened and eased by meditation practice are the same parts implicated in tinnitus relief.
So what is mindfulness meditation? Mindfulness is an approach to the present moment using a special awareness to shape the activities in our nervous system and promote integration and well-being in our lives. Meditation practice trains the brain to use focal attention to bring conscious awareness of our immediate experience into the spotlight. With training, we are better able to slow down habitual (and often deleterious) reactions and replace them with more purposeful responses. By bringing our attention to where we choose it to go, we break old mental habits and open our minds to new ways of thinking, feeling, and being.
A person with bothersome tinnitus gets trapped in a pattern of thinking and story creation that I call the “Tinnitus Gordian Knot.” A Gordian knot is a metaphor for an intractable problem that requires thinking “outside the box” to solve. This is no small task and requires self-discipline, focus, and patience to master. For the majority of people with bothersome tinnitus, the symptom is actually a benign, albeit inconvenient, body sensation. The sensation is misinterpreted by the emotional center of the brain as a potential danger, thereby sustaining the affected person's attention when, in fact, he or she can let it go into the recesses of the mind, resulting in habituation. As stress rises, so does suffering from tinnitus. However, with consistent meditation practice, this Gordian knot can be unwound and healthy stress levels restored.
The skill proposed and taught in a mindfulness-based approach to tinnitus management begins with bringing awareness to the habitual thoughts and beliefs about tinnitus. Much like going to the gym to build muscles, we can hire a personal trainer to guide us, but we have to do the heavy lifting to reach our desired results. We come to realize that many of these thoughts, judgments, and beliefs are based on what we wish things could be, rather than on finding creative solutions to deal with tinnitus in the present.
It is common for patients to hold on to a narrative of how bad life will be if tinnitus persists or how they somehow did something to cause their tinnitus. Rather than experiencing tinnitus as a bare body sensation, the condition often gets wrapped up in a whirlwind of thoughts and beliefs that keeps patients stuck in stories from the past and predictions of a bleak future. These past and future struggles only serve to cloud a patient's ability to see tinnitus as a present-moment body sensation, limiting his or her options to choose healthy and resourceful ways to manage tinnitus in the present.
For those interested in beginning a meditation practice, check out several resources available in-person and online. Let's celebrate the month of May by recognizing the role of stress reduction in successful tinnitus management and helping patients reframe their relationship with tinnitus through meditation.