Tinnitus is sadly a widespread problem, affecting an estimated 50 million Americans over 50. Those who have tinnitus hear continuous sounds that no one around them can hear. These sounds range from high-pitched ringing sounds, buzzing or roaring, or rapid clicking sounds much like crickets chirping. Many people “learn to live with” their tinnitus, considering it as an annoyance rather than a disorder. But for other people, this constant ringing in the ears leads to auxiliary indications of stress and distress, fatigue, sleep disorders, depression, and anxiety.
Tinnitus can be treated technologically, using electronic hearing aids that filter out or suppress the ringing or buzzing sounds, but another form of counseling known as Tinnitus Retraining Therapy approaches the condition from a different angle. Using a combination of mechanisms, TRT “retrains” tinnitus sufferers and gives them the ability to reduce their perceptions of the noises they hear, so they no longer react to the sounds negatively, and thus eventually cease being bothered by them.
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy was discovered in the 1980s by an Austrian neuroscientist named Pawel Jastreboff, and it is radical in the sense that it disputes the assumption that tinnitus is a disorder caused by physical damage that cannot be healed. While it is true that exposure to loud sounds can cause tinnitus, Jastreboff proposed an alternative neuro-physical model based on his training in behavioral neuroscience. Thus freed from the temptation to regard the problem as something that cannot be fixed, he set about developing behavioral modification techniques that could fix it.
The basic assumption of Tinnitus Retraining Therapy is that the tinnitus is not a disease per se, but a reflection of hyperacusis – a person’s innate ability to hear normal sounds generated by the auditory system that others cannot hear. In other words, it’s not the sounds themselves that are a problem, just the distress and over reaction to hearing them. Only people who have been trained in how to administer the TRT training can lead the counseling sessions, which use precise and individually-tuned techniques of training and sound therapy to teach people to eliminate their over reactions to the sounds they don’t want to hear, and instead focus on sounds they do want to hear.
Over the years, TRT counselors have had success with helping people to overcome their conditioned negative responses to the sounds they hear, and thus eliminate the distress they feel at hearing them.