Working with Tinnitus 15 Years on – What’s Changed?

by Julian Cowan Hill

The Fulcrum, Issue 66 September 2015

My career as a Craniosacral Therapist working with tinnitus got off to a flying start. After graduating in 2000 I wrote an article for the Standard which produced a huge in flux of clients. I have been busy ever since and amazingly, I still get clients from that article 15 years later.

The way I held clients then was very much based on my own experience: CST healed my own 20-year long symptoms. I was so deafened by the noise that for a time I couldn’t hear the phone ring or hold down a job. So, when the noise stopped six months after receiving CST, you can imagine what a lifechanging event it was for me. Naively, I felt that if this work could heal me, then I could heal the world!

In practice, I quickly realised that people’s mindsets often get in the way. What I was offering looked like a quick fix which was doomed to failure. A lot of people didn’t come back for follow-up sessions, which was very dissatisfying and not good for anyone. I also carried a great sense of responsibility in that if I didn’t make them better it was my fault, or I wasn’t doing the work well enough.

To remedy this, I insisted that clients had a minimum of six sessions, which they had to pay for up-front. This immediately created much better results as it got rid of clients looking for a quick fix and attracted people who were more able to have a longer-term view. If I felt someone was unsuited to CST, then I would refund the money and refer them on. However, this didn’t happen very often.

Fifteen years on, I don’t take things personally if CST doesn’t work for someone. I let the work do the work, and only say that it may help. I ask people to have three sessions and then judge for themselves if it is something they want to continue with. I tell them that it is up to them to get their nervous system to settle and I may be able to help them achieve this. These
days I get much better results because the clients who come to me have been “filtered” by my website and YouTube videos. Consequently, they know how I work, have a clear idea about what I offer and most importantly, resonate with the way I approach tinnitus.

I have found that clients who have CST once a week for a few months, take up a body-based practice like yoga or tai chi, and who practice focusing techniques (which I teach) get better. First the ringing in their ears becomes less intrusive and they start being able to focus on other things. Then they start forgetting about the noise and find that the sound itself starts backing off.

Some people go on to make a full recovery, meaning no noise in a silent room for long stretches of time. This usually takes a year or more of regular work. I have written two books on how to let go of tinnitus, which also helps people understand a body-based, well-being approach to working with tinnitus.

Having worked with over 600 clients with tinnitus of varying aetiologies e.g. loud noise exposure; acoustic neuroma; stress induced-tinnitus; and anaesthetic-induced tinnitus; I know that CST can help people for two reasons: firstly, it brings them out of fight-or-flight mode and secondly, by allowing them to connect with stillness. This helps symptoms become more manageable.

For the vast majority of people, tinnitus is the fight-or-flight response manifesting through the auditory system. Literally the alarm bells are ringing because the adrenal response from fear or overwhelm is causing the ears to listen out so acutely for danger, that the person not only hears the noise from the external world, but they also start detecting the sound of the central nervous system. Tinnitus sufferers are literally so on alert that they hear the buzz of their own auditory pathways. As cranial contacts help any kind of irritability – be it mental, emotional, or physical – to calm down, CST is generally helpful for tinnitus.

The second way CST helps tinnitus is by specifically dropping the auditory pathways into stillness. In any session, once I have helped the whole system settle more out of fight or flight with broad integrating contacts, I then change gear and drop into stillness. It takes me a good ten minutes of initial working to be able to achieve this state in myself.

From this underlying calmer place, I then take up a very still contact with the outer ears and focus on the tentorium and temporal bones and wait for a buzzy charge to be felt. After a while I often feel a rapid vibration streaming between my hands. The more I relax, the more I can let any high frequency buzz pulse through my fingertips into a field of stillness. I hang out with this for what feels like a long time, maybe ten to 15 minutes of each session. Sometimes I am drawn to specific auditory structures, but generally I sit back and hold awareness around stillness and feel what is disturbing that stillness. Often, when I work in this way, it is as if the tinnitus itself gradually discharges into the emptiness between the hands, and dissipates. I feel it is literally possible to feel the intensity of the tinnitus buzzing in the tissues.

When I feel this buzz or charge settle, people often say, “Gosh, my tinnitus has backed off!” or “the intensity has gone out of my ringing,” or “It has gone quiet.”

If I just sit and let the disturbed tissues buzz, flip, race, and pulse around in their own way, eventually the pattern runs out of steam and chaos realigns with coherence. Calm wins over the day once again.

Tinnitus sufferers are literally so on alert that they hear the buzz of their own auditory pathways.

One of the great things that being a Craniosacral Therapist has taught me is that there really is a palpable, underlying deep coherence that very gently and very quietly causes the more surface dramas to drop back into emptiness. As a practitioner, I am merely holding the space for this to happen. A wider field of awareness that is beyond my ken helps the smaller field settle.

I remind myself constantly that it has taken me 15 years to understand this and that I still don’t understand it fully. My clients may not understand this. The medical model may not understand this, and that’s OK. I still pretend that they should sometimes, but I am learning that it is not my responsibility to get them to understand. I feel it is just helpful being able to hang out with not knowing and not having to explain. It is a great skill to be able to hang out with uncertainty. Who knows really?

These days I prefer to say “I don’t know,” instead of concocting something to try and make myself and my clients feel more in control or comfortable.

I tried to set up a research project in the second year of doing this work. However, the more I tried to be objective about the variables involved, the more I realised how intricate research is, and how many of the important aspects of therapy would have to be ignored.

I realised that the band of imaginary scientists in white coats ticking boxes in laboratories reflected nothing more than fear and a very human need to understand what on earth is going on. I applaud research – don’t get me wrong. But the proof of the pudding is experiencing people getting better. That’s good enough for me.

Trying to be objective about how I help tinnitus sufferers, I realise I do three things: give cranial work; explain how tinnitus works within the fight-or-flight model; and teach focusing techniques to help with grounding. I also strongly recommend people to take up yoga or Tai Chi. I find this the most successful way of helping symptoms back off. Trying to find clear scientific data in this multi-layered swathe of interactions seemed too complicated and messy, and so I decided to focus on just helping people as best as I could.

A big placebo effect that I was blind to was the fact that I had cured my own tinnitus. This effortlessly gave people hope and motivated them to try a similar path. Often people had said that just talking to someone who had got better helped them settle, and as a result helped their tinnitus get a bit better. Allaying fear – to state the obvious – can help symptoms improve dramatically or even dissolve. Some people get better just sitting and talking. How can I factor that variable into the research mix?

The devastating thing for me is that sadly, every day, health practitioners all over the world tell tinnitus people that there is nothing they can do about symptoms. “Just learn to live with it!” is what a £250, ten-minute consultation can end up delivering.

Just imagine having a brass band raging in your head non-stop; the sound of jet-engines at the end of a runway; screeching cats or hissing kettles!

When this hellish intrusion takes over every waking moment of your sleepless life – that’s bad enough. However, to then go and be told by a health-practitioner that there is nothing you can do about it is akin to being told that the Chinese water-torture that you are now suffering is going to last a life-time. This is like casting a torturous spell over someone and is likely to drive them over the edge – if they believe it. Every week I hear of people who have become suicidal as a result of a ten-minute consultation with a health consultant simply because they believed the erroneous message of doom they were being dealt. I have worked with dozens of people who had literally started to plan how to end their life due to tinnitus; contacting Dignitas in Switzerland; or considering the most humane way for their families of bringing such appalling suffering to an end.

Bringing such people back to well-being is very rewarding work. My resources as a practitioner come from knowing it is possible to get better from my own journey, and knowing the strength and power of heart-felt, hands-on contact. I feel respectful contact is still one of the most underrated, life-affirming and sometimes life-saving interactions in our health system (not health service) today.

I am sorry to report that the British Tinnitus Association and the Ear Nose and Throat Association are to date still ignoring my letters asking them to stop telling people with tinnitus there is no known cure. I cited the case of a man who became suicidal within a couple of hours of being told there was nothing he could do about his symptoms.

I will continue to suggest that taking the psychological and therapeutic route helps tinnitus to back off. At the time of writing this article my YouTube video called: ‘Stop Telling People There is No Cure for Tinnitus’ has had 57,000 viewings.

I can think of at least three clients who are moving towards a complete cure from tinnitus after our work together over the last six months. I’m not writing this to blow my own trumpet. I am saying this as a massive thumbs-up to the CST community to encourage your work with tinnitus. I think it is one of the best therapies for this temporary condition. Dropping tinnitus people into stillness is the best thing we can do.

 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of the CSTA.

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