Dr. Google is an utterly terrifying practitioner of diagnostic medicine.
Got a headache? You must be dehydrated, or maybe you have a brain tumor.
Stomach ache? Could be indigestion or the stomach flu. Or maybe you have an intestinal parasite. Maybe it’s one of the dozen other horrible things that turned up in your search results. Ebola. That’s it for sure. You must have Ebola.
You get the idea.
The problem is that there is almost always too much information. Sometimes, that’s a good thing. But when it comes to matters of health, it’s almost always a double-edged sword.
And in the case of complicated chronic health conditions like tinnitus, that sword can cut deeper than you could possibly imagine.
Paging Dr. Google:
Have you ever actually felt less afraid after Googling your symptoms?
I certainly haven’t, though I’ve made myself crazy doing it more times than I’d like to admit.
Sooner or later, we usually end up at the doctor’s office. The doctor will know what to do, right? But what if they don’t? What happens when your doctor says there’s nothing they can do?
When I was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, both Dr. Google and my actual doctor led me to believe my life was over. I had no hope. At 24 years old, I was convinced that I would forever be disabled, destined for a life of suffering and unhappiness.
I was having violent vertigo attacks and tinnitus so loud I might as well have had a fire alarm installed in my ears. I was endlessly exhausted by fatigue and brain fog, and having trouble hearing.
I didn’t even know that it was possible to regain anything resembling a quality of life. There was too much conflicting information. Dr. Google insisted on showing me case after case of the worst suffering imaginable.
And the fear, that dark, all consuming fear, made everything worse. It crippled me.
Are your ears ringing?
Unfortunately, most of the people who overcome complicated health conditions are not the ones writing about it on the internet. They just get on with their lives.
Far too often, the few positive, hopeful, and helpful voices are drowned out by the vocal majority who are still suffering. As a result, forums and Facebook groups can quickly become echo chambers of fear and frustration.
This is especially true for complex medical conditions like tinnitus.
Ringing in the ears is a particularly difficult problem – there’s no cure and even though it affects 10-15% of the general population, many doctors aren’t aware that treatment is possible.
A lot of people are told that there’s nothing they can do, that they just have to live with it, and that’s a huge problem. It’s not just unhelpful, it makes the problem a lot worse because it amplifies their fear. And when these people turn to Google looking for answers or hope, far too often they find their worst fears confirmed.
The fear grows and the vicious cycle begins.
Fear is the straw that breaks the camel’s back:
In my opinion, the underlying problem with tinnitus is how we react to the sound emotionally, psychologically, and physically.
You see, our brains are fully capable of tuning out meaningless noise from our conscious awareness with a mental process called habituation. We do it automatically, all the time. It’s how we’re able to carry on conversations in loud environments.
But we also use sound to monitor our environment for threats, and it’s simply impossible to ignore a sound that the brain interprets as dangerous. It’s why we struggle so much to ignore the sound of our tinnitus.
The issue here is that our brains cannot tell the difference between real danger and an imagined threat like tinnitus. Our fear makes the danger real, whether it’s real or not. So our reaction is the same - we have a stress response, and it doesn’t end because our tinnitus doesn’t go away.
It just gets worse, because the brain starts to associate the resulting feelings of frustration, anxiety, depression, and emotional chaos with the sound itself, until it’s no longer just a simple fight or flight stress response, it’s something much worse.
Suddenly, the sound triggers the anxiety, stress, and frustration, which in turn makes the tinnitus worse.
And it all starts with the fear.
But what would happen if we weren’t afraid? What if our doctors actually gave us hope and our internet research reinforced feelings of empowerment?
Your fate is sealed in an instant:
Take any tinnitus patient, and if you look closely enough at their story, you’ll probably be able to find the exact moment when everything changed.
A moment when the annoying sound that they were still able to cope with crossed some invisible threshold and became something more akin to torture.
But it’s almost never that bad at first.
Remember, it’s our reaction to the sound that the prevents us from tuning it out. In those early days, there’s still hope, and when there’s hope, the fear is largely held at bay.
A person who has suddenly developed tinnitus is standing on a metaphorical fence. On one side is hope, positivity, and sense of personal power. On the other is fear, hopelessness, and despair.
And all it takes to fall one way or the other is the slightest push in either direction. The right voice, heard early enough, can gently set you on a path toward relief.
But a doctor who tells you that there’s nothing you can do, or the internet research equivalent, might as well be a front kick to the face. You don’t just fall off the fence, you plummet head first into a downward spiral of fear and emotional anguish.
Why it matters (especially if you’re suffering right now):
The key takeaway here is that you should stop researching tinnitus when it’s bothering you, or more specifically, avoid anyone or anything that leaves you feeling hopeless.
If you’re more anxious after reading through a tinnitus message board or news article, you’ve done yourself a disservice. You’ve made it more difficult to cope.
Because that standing on the fence moment that I talked about - it doesn’t just happen in the early days. It happens over and over again, especially when you have a tinnitus spike, or anytime it suddenly starts bothering you more than before.
Reducing your fear at these later moments won’t give you relief, but it will prevent it from getting worse. Or to put it another way, an increase in fear will prevent you from getting better and finding relief.
I often wonder what the tinnitus landscape would look like if doctors were more informed.
Obviously, it wouldn’t fix everything, but I truly believe that far fewer people would reach the depths of despair that we’re seeing now.
In the meantime, we can avoid the voices that reinforce our fears and work to better understand the problem. Because there is hope. We can habituate, and get to a place where it stops bothering us.
We can dramatically improve our quality of life.
Regardless of what you might have read, or what your doctor told you, relief from tinnitus is always possible.
(A version of this post first appeared on my tinnitus help blog Rewiring Tinnitus)