Sound is a vital part of our lives, but like most things, its impact on us depends on both the quality of the sounds we hear, and the quantity of them. For example, for most of us, listening to music we enjoy is comforting and restful, but flip the volume of the same music up too loud – such as at a concert or when listening to headphones on maximum volume – and the very same music is jarring and capable of inducing stress.
While the quality of the sounds we hear is subjective, and depends upon individual tastes, the quantity (as measured by loudness ,in decibels) is very objective. Being exposed to loud sounds, especially for prolonged periods of time, can permanently damage the sensitive hair cells that permit us to hear, and lead to noise-induced hearing loss. As a result of being exposed to these loud sounds, an estimated one in five Americans have developed some degree of tinnitus (constantly hearing a buzzing or ringing sound in the ears). Its easy to understand how excessive volume can cause stress, but so too can really quiet sounds. For instance, the dripping of a faucet or ticking of a clock have been shown to trigger stress, anxiety and insomnia.
On the flip side, sound can be used to lower stress and anxiety and even treat some types of hearing loss. Chanting, ocean surf, birds singing or falling water are sounds that most people find soothing and calming. More and more, these types of sounds are being used by psychologists to treat anxiety rather than create it, and by audiologists to treat hearing problems such as tinnitus rather than cause them. Music therapy is reaching the mainstream in clinics and hospitals to accelerate healing after surgery, in stroke rehabilitation, and to impede the progression of Alzheimer’s. Both at home and in offices, white noise generators (which produce a sound similar to surf) have been used to conquer sleep disorders and to mask the background sounds of noisy environments.
More directly related to hearing loss, sound and music therapy is being used more and more to treat tinnitus by creating what specialists call a threshold shift, which allows tinnitus patients to psychologically mask the constant buzzing or ringing sounds they hear. Using music therapy, audiologists have been able to help tinnitus sufferers to retrain their brains, to focus less on the continuous buzzing, and to focus more on the foreground sounds they want to hear, and which are more pleasant. While the tinnitus ringing doesn’t disappear, the stress and anxiety that it otherwise produces are reduced. The patients learn to focus attention on desirable sounds in favor of undesirable ones.
So if you or a family member has tinnitus, give us a call and set up a consultation so that we can discuss treatment options, which may include music therapy, with you.