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Hyperacusis and Tinnitus: Silence Is Not Always Golden

For individuals with a decreased tolerance for sound, the auditory system actually becomes more sensitive to external sounds—that is, it “strains” to hear sound until it perceives any sound as louder than it seems to others. When this situation recurs often or becomes chronic, it’s called hyperacusis. Our perception of the loudness of sound depends upon the contrast between the sound itself and surrounding background noise. That is, how loud is this new sound in comparison to the baseline sound that I was already accustomed to?

For example, when listening to a car radio while driving, you set the volume at a level that’s comfortable, based on the ambient sound of the engine revved up to speed, surrounding traffic, passengers’ conversation, etc. But if you leave the radio on when you park the car, how’s the volume when you start the engine for a subsequent trip? Too loud, right? That’s because your auditory mechanism is automatically contrasting the sounds from the radio with the much quieter environment inside a non-moving automobile.

In a noisy restaurant or night club, are you likely to notice if someone softly whistles a tune nearby? What if you awakened in a totally silent room to hear someone whistling the same tune on the sidewalk outside your bedroom window? It would seem quite loud and intrusive.

Individuals who suffer with anxiety from ringing in the ears—tinnitus—often feel that silence is golden They crave situations where they might hear no sound at all. And silence is the worst possible thing for their condition. Likewise, people with a decreased tolerance for loud sound crave silence. Once again, this is the worst possible remedy for their condition. Their auditory mechanism will become more and more sensitive to loud sounds unless it is exposed to gradually increasing safe levels of sound. These normal levels of sound literally desensitize the system to louder sounds.

Silence puts the autonomic nervous system on high alert. This primitive “fight-or-flight” system evolved during a time when silence often signaled impending danger—such as the sudden silence of jungle birds and small animals whenever a predator approached in the night. Humans evolved in noise-filled environments, and we function best today under similar conditions. Isolation meant almost certain death in primitive times. We were forced to band together in order to survive the elements. At a core level, we still feel safest when surrounded by the sounds that others make as they go about their daily routines.

Since the loudness of sound is interpreted in relation to concurrent sound, silence makes any sound—internal or external—seem louder than if background levels were raised. This explains why white-noise generators or soft music playing are so effective to mask the sounds of a noisy neighbor, morning garbage trucks, or other unwanted and intrusive sounds.

So, the lesson here is to enrich your environment 24/7/365 with safe levels of pleasing sound. This is especially important when you sleep at night. Play a sound generator near your bed, soft music from a CD player, or have a noisy fan in the room. Anything that generates sound for your ears to listen to will help maintain their normal function.

In my professional opinion, Anxiety Relief Techniques® provides the most effective relief ever available from the suffering of hyperacusis.