Be there for one another. Tinnitus makes you lonely.

Tuesday, 26/01/2021

Contribution by Dr. Kurt Anschütz, Managing Director

Tinnitus makes you lonely. The noise is in the head and no one else can hear it. Tinnitus is not always the same. When patients want to depict how it distresses them, they paint it as a screecher, a sawyer and a hammerer, as a whistling sound or as a disturber that gives no rest day or night. But even if he temporarily withdraws, he still remains there subliminally - a stressor even in absence.

There is no medicine. In the case of tinnitus that has become chronic, the therapeutic effort is for the patient to gradually learn to live with the tinnitus. This requires patience and always the willingness to review one's living conditions. It often takes great courage to change them.

Fortunately, many patients succeed in pushing the tinnitus out of their perception over time. And when it suddenly returns, it is still a stressor, but now it is also a voice: "It reminds me. You have overreached yourself again," patients report of their inner dialogue.

Stress reduction is indeed of particular importance. Studies carried out at the Tinnitus Centre of the Charité in recent years prove a reciprocal connection between tinnitus and stress.

With the Corona pandemic, a stress period has now appeared this year that is overtaking us all. COVID 19 is "eating into our lives" and disturbing us with "ultimate questions" that seemed far away just a few months ago: Questions about reliability and belonging, about meaning and dying. In the Advent season, when we have been looking forward to holidays and communal experiences since time immemorial, the "second wave" of the pandemic has now arrived in Germany, and the current "case numbers" fully prove the violence of this virus: "It's threatening to get out of hand" has become the image for the general impression of helplessness. And despite the start of vaccinations, most people will still have to wait months before they too will be protected.

If global studies show that the pandemic has led to states of exhaustion, fear of loss and the experience of loneliness in millions of people across all age groups, then these burdens also manifest themselves in tinnitus patients. A European-American study already showed in autumn that about 40 percent of the more than 3,000 patients surveyed experience tinnitus as much more disturbing. This was to be expected, because permanent stress not only makes people more vulnerable, but at the same time, precisely those reliefs that are considered essential in tinnitus therapy have become partially impossible due to the pandemic: Contact with other people has been greatly reduced, stimulating meeting places such as clubs, cultural events, restaurants and sports groups have been closed, and daily contact with colleagues has been cancelled for months due to working in a home office. Many patients complain of increasing loneliness and growing anxiety and suffer from the fact that the empathy of those around them is diminishing because most other people are now absorbed by their own problems. The pandemic separates people from each other, but for tinnitus sufferers this is a particular vicious spiral: for when external stimuli fall away and external relationships become fragile, it is difficult to continue to divert attention away from the tinnitus, which can thus become all the more dominant. The virus not only infects, but also attacks the psychological defences.

Further studies will show whether and how the pandemic will affect tinnitus patients in the medium term. It is to be hoped that with the return of a more "open-minded world", the emotional strain and suffering caused by the stressor in the head and mind will also decrease again.

Keeping our distance is still the order of the day, certainly.  But we should never forget how important it is to be there for each other, especially in these times.

This article was first published as part of the Advent Calendar 2020 on the website of the Heinz and Heide Dürr Foundation.