More than 50 million people in the U.S. have tinnitus to some extent. Tinnitus is usually not permanent and doesn't represent a serious health condition; rather, it's a symptom of something else. However, about 16 million people have tinnitus that is disruptive to their daily lives and causes them to seek medical treatment. Tinnitus can be tricky, because it causes stress and anxiety for many people but can also be exacerbated by anxiety. Here's what to know about this symptom, the research and how quelling your anxiety might decrease or eliminate tinnitus:

What causes tinnitus?

Researchers aren't exactly sure about the mechanisms that cause tinnitus, though many think it can originate from either the brain or the cochlea. But tinnitus is a symptom of various other conditions and issues, such as:

  • Wax buildup in the ears
  • Misalignment of the jaw
  • The use of Ototoxic medications
  • Noise exposure, which can damage the hair cells in the inner ear
  • Neck and head trauma
  • Certain disorders, such as Meniere's disease, hypo- and hyper-thyroidism
  • Cardiovascular disease

Tinnitus is also concomitant with hearing loss, and is most strongly associated with noise-induced hearing loss.

Tinnitus and anxiety

While the most effective treatment for tinnitus is shown to be eliminating or treating its underlying cause, as noted above, the underlying cause of tinnitus is often unknown. Additionally, much research has shown that while tinnitus can cause anxiety and stress, it also can be made worse by anxiety and stress: a vicious cycle. People with anxiety often perceive increased loudness of the ringing in their ears. In fact, recent research shows that the brains of people with tinnitus respond more hastily to threatening information, such as an angry face or yelling, which signals more anxiety than others.

An example of how tinnitus and anxiety work hand in hand is that people often become anxious before bed, worried that their tinnitus will make them unable to fall asleep, which only exacerbates their inability to fall asleep. But when the cause of the ringing, hissing or whooshing sound in your ears is unknown, there are many things you can do to reduce your anxiety.

Reducing anxiety and tinnitus

Here are some things that might reduce anxiety to in turn reduce one's experience of tinnitus:

  • Biofeedback therapy is a technique that people use where they focus on controlling bodily functions that are typically involuntary, such as heart rate and breathing. A person is connected to electrical sensors that displays the information to them via lights. People use their thoughts to control their body and focus on making subtle changes like moving a particular muscle to achieve the results they want.
  • Relaxation techniques include mediation and deep breathing, and can help people focus on something aside from their tinnitus. These techniques have been shown to be therapeutic for many people in reducing anxiety.
  • Sound machines or tinnitus maskers are devices that generate white noise or other soothing sounds to cover up, or "mask," one's experience of tinnitus.
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