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The mental impact of hearing problems

Netdoctor (UK) logo Netdoctor (UK) 07/02/2018 Jenny Cook

How hearing problems affect your mental health © Peter Dazeley / Getty How hearing problems affect your mental health  It can be easy to take our ears for granted but, with an estimated 10 million people in the UK suffering from some sort of hearing loss, it's important to remember just how intricately connected our senses are to our wellbeing.

Research suggests that people who suffer from hearing problems are more likely to develop emotional, behavioural and adjustment disorders, with links established between declining ear function and an increase in mental distress – resulting in symptoms such as anxiety, depression and confusion.

At a time when as many as one in four people are expected to suffer from some form of mental illness during their lifetime, it's important that we pay attention to the ways in which the physical affects of a condition impact us mentally. Here, we speak to Tony Kay – head of audiology services at Aintree University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and a member of the British Tinnitus Association's professional advisors committee – about the ways in which ear problems can affect our mental health, and what we should be doing about it.

An isolating experience

Being diagnosed with any health problem can be an isolating experience, yet in cases where one of your key senses (such as hearing) takes a hit, then the impact can be felt even more acutely. Tony explains: 

"It's true that hearing loss and other ear problems – such as tinnitus – may have a negative impact on an individual's mental health, with hearing loss sometimes leading to social isolation and depression, and tinnitus sometimes leading to stress and anxiety and also impacting on sleep patterns and concentration, in turn causing further anxiety and depression."

One person who has experienced this first hand is London-based mother of two Emma Walker, 41, who has been battling with tinnitus for six months. She shared her experience with us… 

Emma's story

"I had finished a busy day and sat down at home and then all of a sudden I heard a fizzle sound in my ear. It was loud but I just assumed it would pass. After a few days with the noise not any better at all, I just knew something was wrong. That's when things began to unravel for me really.

"I went to the GP who diagnosed tinnitus and I was referred to ENT where they found no problem with my ears or hearing and I was left to deal with the horrible noise by myself. It slowly just started to take over my life and it was very challenging. 

It slowly started to take over my life... I just did not know how I was going to carry on living and functioning for my children with no escape from the noise in my head

"I had a meltdown and couldn't work. I just did not know how I was going to carry on living and functioning for my children with no escape from the noise in my head.

"I felt like the reaction I was getting from other people was that it was not dangerous and I was not going to die from it so I just had to get on with it, but that attitude just dismisses the condition and the impact it can have. You feel alone and as if the tinnitus is not as serious as you are making out, but there is just no escape from it."

a person looking at the camera © Provided by National magazine company ltd (Hearst UK)

What to do

Thankfully, help is at hand for those who are suffering. Modern digital hearing aids, NHS support and local or national charities are all on hand to offer advice to those who are struggling to come to terms with their hearing condition, both mentally and physically. Tony says: 

"If you have some form of hearing loss, it is usual to be offered a hearing aid to help increase the level of sound entering your ear, and this often helps to reduce the awareness of tinnitus, too. Sound enrichment, which means listening to music or pleasant environmental sounds that you enjoy, and relaxation are found to be beneficial in many cases, as many people find that anxiety and stress makes their tinnitus worse."

Keeping busy and maintaining a normal routine could also help you stay positive. 

"Often we naturally notice and focus on things when they are at their worse, it's useful to reflect on the times when your tinnitus is not as much of a problem, for example some find that when they are watching a really good film or enjoying their hobbies then they are not as aware of their tinnitus. Socialising and carrying on doing things we enjoy is important."

No matter how severely you judge yourself to be suffering, it is always important to talk about your condition and discuss how it is making you feel. There is growing evidence that talking to somebody else who is experiencing similar problems can be helpful, as it reduces those feelings of isolation and helps you realise that you are not alone.

It is important that you discuss any concerns you have with your GP, who may refer you to a local tinnitus service. Mutual support can be offered at a local tinnitus support group and the British Tinnitus Association also have a helpline at 0800 018 0527.

Related: How Exercise Benefits Your Mental Health (Provided by Wochit News)

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