Tinnitus and Stress: A Strong Connection

Written by:

Dr. Hamid Djalilian

Neurotology

10 min read
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Understanding Stress and Tinnitus

There's a strong two-way association between tinnitus and stress. Understanding this connection is critical for those who suffer from tinnitus. Here, I'll review the following topics:

The Vicious Cycle of Tinnitus and Stress

While stress doesn't directly cause tinnitus, it plays a pivotal role in amplifying its loudness and annoyance. When ear ringing is secondary to stress, it's called “stress-induced tinnitus”. That is, the stress is initiates and amplifies the tinnitus sound.

Here's a striking comment in a recent medical paper on tinnitus I found; “Psycho-social stress has been shown to share the same probability of developing tinnitus as occupational noise”[1]. That is, stress and “listening to a jackhammer” have the same probability of causing tinnitus!

tinnitus and stress can be so bad, its like listening to a jackhammer.

At the same time, persistent tinnitus can be disturbing to the point where it acts to amplify stress (i.e. tinnitus caused the stress). When people get anxiety secondary to tinnitus, an inflammatory response can occur in the brain (much like a migraine). This inflammation causes increased neuronal activity in the brain's hearing center, which in turn amplifies the existing tinnitus sound even louder. 

In short, there's a vision cycle where stress and tinnitus have a two-way causal relationship. This article delves into the relationship between anxiety, stress, and tinnitus, exploring effective management strategies for when stress and anxiety lead to ringing and tinnitus (and visa versa).

Anxiety Disorders, Stress, and Tinnitus

Before we begin, let’s establish some working definitions of anxiety, stress, and tinnitus. 

Anxiety Definition

Anxiety is defined in a medical context as a response to perceived threats, characterized by apprehension, worry, and fear, and often accompanied by physical symptoms. Anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and specific phobias, involve persistent and excessive anxiety symptoms that may significantly impact daily functioning. 

What is trait anxiety?

Trait anxiety, on the other hand, refers to an individual's predisposition or baseline level of anxiety in response to various stressors. It represents a stable characteristic and is often measured as a personality trait, indicating how likely an individual is to experience anxiety across different situations. People with trait anxiety may never feel the need to seek psychiatric medical care. 

"Book the calI, it's worth it. I learned more about my tinnitus in the discovery call than from my doctor."

– Alice Lee

Female tinnitus patient Alice Lee

Ready for relief? NeuroMed can help.

Stress Definition

Stress is medically defined as a physiological and psychological response to challenging or threatening situations. Importantly, stress can either be a psychological symptom or secondary to trauma, infection, or other forms of bodily stress. The body's adaptive reaction involves the activation of the “fight or flight” response, releasing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Chronic or excessive stress can have negative effects on physical and mental health.

What is Tinnitus?

Tinnitus refers to hearing a sound in the absence of an external source. Tinnitus is a common condition where people hear a sound of ringing, buzzing, or hissing. While occasional ringing in one or both ears is normal, clinically significant tinnitus is persistent, intrusive, and oppressive. What sets these kinds of tinnitus symptoms apart from mild tinnitus is the neural network connections between hearing and the fear center of the brain.

What is pulsatile tinnitus?

Pulsatile tinnitus refers to a type of tinnitus where you can hear the whooshing of your heart beating in your ears. A common cause is high blood pressure changes that accompany a psychological symptom like stress. If this is happening, you should consult with your doctor, as it may be a symptom of something correctable. For the rest of the article, we'll focus on subjective tinnitus (like high-pitched ringing).

Can stress cause ringing in ears?

Stress can amplify the perceived loudness and annoyance of ear ringing, making the tinnitus worse. Physiological stress can either be from psychological pressure or from bodily stress, such as seen in trauma or infection. A person with stress-induced tinnitus may not yet have constant ear ringing. Rather, they only hear the ear ringing when they experience stress.

In people with existing tinnitus, stress is one of the risk factors that can amplify the ear ringing sound, making the tinnitus worse than their typical baseline. One study showed that tinnitus patients tend to experience louder and more bothersome tinnitus when they're feeling stressed [2].

How does stress affect the brain?

Tinnitus and stress can have direct effects on the brain

Physiological and emotional stress can cause dramatic changes in the way the brain functions. This can be particularly important in conditions that are sensitive to these changes, like migraine and tinnitus. Stress can amplify the ringing sound in the ear through the following interconnected mechanisms:

Brain Impact of StressHow It Amplifies Tinnitus
Increased Neural ActivityStress hormones can enhance neural activity in the auditory pathways, potentially making the perception of the tinnitus sound more pronounced.
NeuroinflammationStress can increase inflammation in the brain. This includes the release of inflammatory molecules and the activation of inflammatory cells. These are implicated in tinnitus loudness via the migraine pathway.
Vasoconstriction and Blood Flow ChangesStress can lead to vasoconstriction, reducing blood flow to the inner ear. Insufficient blood flow may negatively impact the hair cells and other structures in the auditory system, potentially worsening tinnitus symptoms.
Central Auditory ProcessingStress can directly affect central auditory processing. This changes how the nervous system interprets and responds to auditory nerve signals can can lead to increased awareness and sensitivity to hearing tinnitus sounds.
Emotional AmplificationStress heightens emotional responses. Heightened emotional states, such as anxiety or frustration, is a contributing factor to worsening tinnitus.
Impact on SleepStress often disrupts sleep patterns, and inadequate sleep can contribute to an exacerbation of tinnitus symptoms. Stress, sleep, and tinnitus are all interrelated.
Hearing HypersensitivityStress-induced tinnitus can amplify environmental noise, making hearing loud music or loud noises particularly annoying (hyperacusis and misophonia). This effect on the hearing system can lead to difficulty concentrating or increased tinnitus severity.
Tinnitus and stress are related through the various impacts that stress has on the brain.

Understanding these physiological connections highlights the importance of managing stress. In the beginning, stress-related tinnitus may be reversible, as the neural networks connecting the fear and hearing centers in the brain are not fully established. However, with time, these neural networks become harder to reverse and only respond to intensive exercises, like CBT.

As a side note, we now know that stress is a significant risk factor for triggering Meniere's disease symptoms (vertigo, ear fullness, hearing loss, and tinnitus). Meniere’s disease is closely linked with ringing ears.

Can tinnitus cause anxiety and stress?

man with tinnitus and stress

Tinnitus acts as a trigger for anxiety and stress, where the anxiety is secondary to tinnitus. That is, a constant loud ringing sound in the ears can induce a stress response. Here are the ways that tinnitus can cause anxiety and stress

Psychological Impact of TinnitusDescription
Cognitive FocusConstant awareness of tinnitus sounds can lead to a heightened cognitive focus on the auditory sensations. This persistent attention to the perceived ringing noise may contribute to increased stress levels.
Emotional ImpactTinnitus can evoke emotional responses, including anxiety, frustration, or fear, particularly if the sounds are perceived as bothersome or disruptive. These emotional reactions can trigger the stress response in the brain.
Sleep DisturbancesTinnitus may interfere with sleep, leading to inadequate rest. Sleep is crucial for stress regulation, and disruptions in sleep patterns can contribute to an elevated stress response.
Negative Impact on Quality of LifeFor some individuals, tinnitus can negatively impact various aspects of daily life, including work, relationships, and social activities. The resulting decrease in overall quality of life may contribute to chronic stress.
Fear and AnticipationThe fear of tinnitus worsening or the anticipation of experiencing distressing sounds can create a constant state of alertness, further activating the stress response.
Neural Network ConnectionsResearch suggests that there are neural network connections between the auditory cortex and the fear center of the brain, such as the amygdala. These connections can enhance the emotional significance of tinnitus, amplifying stress responses.
CatastrophizationIndividuals with tinnitus may engage in catastrophization, wherein they excessively focus on the negative consequences of the condition. This cognitive distortion can contribute to heightened stress levels.
The psychological impact of tinnitus can lead to stress and anxiety.

Tinnitus anxiety is harder to treat in the sense that the neural networks between the inner ear and the brain's fear center are already established. Treatment necessarily involves a process of rewiring the brain so that tinnitus perception becomes uncoupled from the stress response. 

How to Overcome Anxiety, Tinnitus, and Stress

Addressing the psychological impact high stress has on tinnitus is essential in breaking the cycle of stress amplification. While there is no specific cure, here are some treatment options that may help if you feel stressed:

InterventionDescription
Exercise for Stress ReductionRegular physical activity serves as a powerful tool for stress reduction, releasing endorphins that counteract anxiety symptoms and promoting overall well-being. Incorporating exercise into daily routines can contribute to a balanced and calm state of mind.
Caffeine ReductionMinimizing caffeine intake is another effective strategy for managing stress. Excessive caffeine consumption can contribute to heightened anxiety, and reducing intake can lead to a more balanced mental state, positively impacting stress-related tinnitus.
Mindfulness PracticesMindfulness techniques, including meditation and deep breathing exercises, provide valuable tools for staying present and calm. Cultivating a mindful awareness breaks the cycle of stress and tinnitus amplification, promoting a more harmonious experience.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)CBT techniques address negative thought patterns and habits, offering a structured approach to reshape responses to stressors. A recent meta analysis showed that across multiple clinical trials, CBT can helped people reduce tinnitus-related stress [3].
Sleep OptimizationOptimizing sleep hygiene practices is essential for stress management and overall well-being. Quality sleep contributes to a restful experience, alleviating the impact of stress on tinnitus symptoms.
Sound TherapyOne of the best ways to take the edge off of tinnitus in one or both ears is to use sound therapy. This suppresses the hyperactivity of the neurons that cause tinnitus and gives your brain a rest.
Hearing AidEvidence suggests that if you have hearing loss, using a hearing aid can help with tinnitus because it supports an acoustically enriched environment. They can be worn behind the ears or in the ear canal.
MedicationsAt NeuroMed, we frequently prescribe medications as part of the overall tinnitus treatment program. These doctor-prescribed medications can often help to reduce stress-induced tinnitus.
Interventions that can break the tinnitus-stress cycle.

Addressing psychological factors surrounding stress is important, but a comprehensive tinnitus management program should also include other tools and treatments.

Conclusion: Breaking the tinnitus-stress cycle

a chain showing breaking the cycle of tinnitus and stress

The tinnitus-stress cycle can be addressed by integrating stress management strategies, addressing catastrophization, and seeking help from a doctor or other medical professional when appropriate. Often, identifying the underlying cause of your stress is critical in decreasing ringing ears.

At NeuroMed, we offer full-spectrum tinnitus care via telehealth. We use an integrative medicine approach to treatments, addressing all aspects of tinnitus in order to accomplish long-lasting tinnitus relief. Our program is perfectly suited for tinnitus sufferers who are battling with the vicious cycle of chronic stress and tinnitus.

References on Tinnitus and Stress

[1] Patil JD, Alrashid MA, Eltabbakh A, Fredericks S. The association between stress, emotional states, and tinnitus: a mini-review. Front Aging Neurosci. 2023 May 3;15:1131979.

[2] Elarbed A, Fackrell K, Baguley DM, Hoare DJ. Tinnitus and stress in adults: a scoping review. Int J Audiol. 2021 Mar;60(3):171-182.

[3] Hesser H, Weise C, Westin VZ, Andersson G. A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials of cognitive-behavioral therapy for tinnitus distress. Clin Psychol Rev. 2011 Jun;31(4):545-53.

Dr. Hamid Djalilian

Neurotology

Dr. Hamid Djalilian, a tinnitus specialist and distinguished figure in the areas of otolaryngology, neurosurgery, and biomedical engineering, is NeuroMed’s Chief Medical Advisor.

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