Habituation – what is it exactly?

The aim of every tinnitus sufferer is to habituate to their tinnitus.

This means reaching a state of mind where you no longer have a negative emotional response to your tinnitus.

We habituate or adapt to various stimuli every day of our lives:

  • the feel of our clothes on our bodies
  • the unchanging things we see around us each day
  • traffic noise….

We all know people who have moved to a home or workplace on a busy street. At first they find the traffic noise distracting, even distressing, but in time reach the point where they are rarely even aware of the noise that surrounds them. This is called habituation.

In general, the noises we are most able to ignore are predictable, repetitive sounds we perceive as nonthreatening, uninteresting and unimportant.


Progression towards Habituation

Most people who develop persistent tinnitus will spontaneously habituate or adapt to their tinnitus over time, so that while the tinnitus may still be heard, attention is rarely given to it and emotional acceptance is achieved – the tinnitus is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Habituation is a normal reaction to any persistent stimulus. For example, just after putting your clothes on in the morning they can be felt on the skin, but this sensation lasts only a very short time. During the day, you do not notice their touch, even though skin receptors continue to send signals to the brain about the sensation of your clothes against your skin.

As you move towards habituation, you will notice a gradual increase in the periods of time when you are not aware of your tinnitus, as well as a gradual reduction in any annoyance or distress it may have caused. Illness and stress can lead to moving backwards in this process. Sometimes people become stuck and are unable to habituate as fully to their tinnitus as they would like. An awareness and understanding of your individual pattern of coping with setbacks and trauma, as well as stress management, may be required for habituation to be achieved.

Progression towards habituation is not a case of going from one level to another and not having relapses or bad days. Tinnitus sufferers have days when they may be overtired or have underlying stress in their lives. Tinnitus will be more troublesome on those days. However, through learning to manage your tinnitus, the bad days will be fewer and further apart.

As you learn to manage your tinnitus and progress towards habituation, changes will take place in the areas of depression, anxiety, your ability to concentrate, shifting your focus from the tinnitus and insomnia. In the early stages the majority of people have trouble in several or all of these areas. As you move towards habituation, each area will gradually improve to the point where you are rarely troubled by your tinnitus and it does not interfere with normal activities. Although the tinnitus will still be present, you will not be emotionally disturbed by it, or overly aware of it.