Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Practicing mindfulness is not as easy as it may seem, especially for people with tinnitus whose symptoms are often accompanied by fears that their condition may worsen, that their tinnitus may be a sign of a larger illness, or may indicate impending or progressive hearing loss.
A struggle may develop between the person and the tinnitus, which often leads to fatigue, depression, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, and interpersonal problems. Mindfulness-based therapies teach people how to change their relationship to tinnitus in an effort to lessen or eliminate this struggle.
Mindfulness, as it is taught in the MBTSR course, is simply the practice of bringing a “special” kind of awareness to each moment as it arises. But this special awareness is different from run-of-the-mill awareness. By “special” I mean an awareness with qualities of curiosity, openness, acceptance, non-clinging to judgment, and with a compassion for oneself. The MBTSR course teaches skills to live moment-to-moment with tinnitus by building, strengthening, and practicing this special kind of awareness. It may sound simple, but it certainly is not easy and takes consistent practice just like learning any new skill.
Many people with tinnitus come to believe that they ‘are’, in fact, their tinnitus. Mindfulness provides a simple but powerful route for getting ourselves “unstuck.” It can help us accept things that we cannot control, provide courage to change what we can, and reconnect us with our own wisdom and vitality. It is a way to take charge of the direction and quality of our own lives. The key is appreciating and cultivating an intimate relationship with the present by bringing awareness and care to each moment. MBTSR utilizes elements of deep-breathing, gentle yoga, relaxation, and attentional focus, and awareness building to reframe our relationship to or perception of tinnitus.
In a White Paper I published in July, I talk about what I believe is happening in the brain of the person with tinnitus and talk about research out of Harvard showing that the parts of the brain (Medial Pre-Frontal Cortex) that are needed for attention control, fear modulation, pausing and thinking before acting and many others, is actually larger in those with a strong meditation practice. The MBTSR course capitalizes on this and teaches simple meditation skills to strengthen the part of the brain and leave the person better equipped to respond to tinnitus in a new more adaptive way.