Coping with Tinnitus with Stoicism

Stoicism and Tinnitus

Denis Watkins


 Picture Copyright, Allan MacIver

When I retired in 1995 I was looking forward to buying a dog and living near the sea. After a week I woke early one morning with a piercing whine in my head. I consulted my GP who said, “You have tinnitus. It is not life threatening but it is incurable and something you just have to live with. I can prescribe tranquilisers.”

Tinnitus is a deceptively pleasant word that trips from the tongue. However, it can lead to a life of disruption, lack of sleep and despair. I discovered that there was a correlation between severe tinnitus, from which I suffer, and depression and suicide. The future seemed bleak.

The sound was continuous and my sleeplessness was chronic. This left me exhausted during the day. My worst time came a few weeks later at Christmas. Sitting in a happy family group I felt alienated in my misery. How could I live with tinnitus and its effects?

One day I picked up Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic which I had bought when browsing in a bookshop. I had also bought Epictetus’ “Enchiridion” and Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations.” I began reading “Letters from a Stoic” again, this time underlining some passages.

When I came to “Letter LVI” it was about loud, constant and intrusive noise. I read, “For I force my mind to become self-absorbed and not let outside things distract it. There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within.”

Seneca, who suffered severely from ill health, particularly asthma, wrote, “It was my Stoic studies that saved me.” Perhaps they could save me? I began studying the Stoics. Instead of being a passive victim I had an objective and I began feeling more optimistic. I wondered whether, and how, people in far more difficult circumstances than myself had been helped by Stoic thinking.

I read about W. E. Henley, who wrote “Invictus” in response to suffering a life of illness and pain. This poem has inspired many people including long term prisoners such as Nelson Mandela and Admiral James B. Stockdale who said Epictetus had enabled him to survive a harsh prison regime in North Vietnam.

Epictetus, a Roman slave, was described by Simplicius as being weak in body and lame from an early age. His “Enchiridion” said, “Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things.” And, “Illness interferes with the body, not with one’s faculty of choice, unless that faculty of choice wishes it.”

Epictetus’ philosophy about accepting what fate has dealt and turning the bad into good by skilful living appealed to me. “Seek not that the things that happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen be as they are.” Epictetus taught resilience by focussing on our attitudes and judgements which are up to us and which we can control. Those things which are not up to us are externals such as our body, our reputation, our property.

We can use our reason to keep tranquil. Epictetus often used sporting metaphors. “When a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man.” The match was intended to lead to added skill. To fail was acceptable because you could immediately try again.

Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic, was influenced by Epictetus’ philosophy. He said that it was pointless to worry about what you could not change and, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease to worry about things which are beyond our will.”

But these are words. Can they be used practically? Epictetus said, “Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.” To the ancient Greeks Stoicism was a method to be lived and practised. When tinnitus hit me I needed the Stoics and I knew that for my condition they were the only game in town. I sought examples of those who had suffered and for whom Stoicism worked in practice.

On 15th November 1993 Admiral James B. Stockdale gave a speech at the Great Hall, King’s College, London. It was later printed as Courage under fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behaviour by the Hoover Institution. Stockdale provided what I wanted because his test was severe and far beyond my own.

Stockdale was a fighter pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam. The villagers who caught him beat him so badly that he was lame for the rest of his life. He was tortured fifteen times, put in leg irons for two years, and put in solitary confinement for four years and in prison for seven years. He wrote that you can be reduced “by men to a helpless sobbing wreck – unable to control your own bowels – in a matter of minutes.”

Stockdale, even under torture, fought to preserve his “agency”: that aspect of the human mind that lay within its control and could be retained and exercised. Whatever his captors did to him, however cruel, he still had some control over his attitude.   They could not remove that.

Stockdale remembered Epictetus’ sayings he had memorised while a pilot. At the end of his imprisonment he concluded that having tested Epictetus’ postulates “against demanding real life challenges……..I think he passed with flying colours.” Stockdale said that only Epictetus enabled him to survive the harsh prison regime.

In “Stoic Warriors” Professor Nancy Sherman who interviewed Stockdale said that, “I found it hard to keep track of when he was quoting and when he was speaking in his own voice.”

Lecturing to the USA military Nancy Sherman found that Stoicism had a strong appeal. War results in young men and women who are maimed and survive only as a result of modern medicine. Men return who do not have arms to hug their child. She writes, “When we arrived at Epictetus, many officers and students alike felt they had come home.”

As I read the Stoics again I had a new awareness. I learned that “controlling the emotions is difficult but it can be empowering.” Practice is essential. Seneca wrote, “Difficulty strengthens the mind as labour does the body.” Epictetus viewed difficulties as challenges. Whatever hand fate deals, accept it, and use it with skill.

I discovered that controlling my thinking affected my emotions and thus my attitudes to tinnitus. I discovered that perspective is important and the cosmos is unconcerned about my problems. What happens happens. Accept and deal with it. Focus on what you can affect and ignore the rest. To try to control what you cannot leads to frustration and misery.

I have not removed the problem of my tinnitus. I still have chronic sleep problems and the tiredness that ensues. But for much of the day I don’t notice my tinnitus. What has changed is my attitude. The fear has gone. Tinnitus, instead of dominating my life, has become of minor concern. I learned from Seneca that, “We suffer more often in imagination than reality.” The result is to add to the original problem. I can relax with tinnitus and often ignore it.

The practice of Stoicism means for me keeping track of my thoughts and controlling them. There are also techniques of deflection. Kayaking on a rough sea is a wonderful way to focus the mind. Hill walking with my dog has the same effect.

And I read the Stoics every day.

More about the author: “Apart from two years in the army, I worked in Local Government.  I qualified in Social Work and retired as Assistant Director.   Shortly after I retired I developed tinnitus.    I moved, with my wife, to live near the sea in Pembrokeshire.  I have pursued an interest in CBT, Mindfulness and Stoic Philosophy.   Stoicism has been essential  in helping me deal with tinnitus.”

6 thoughts on Coping with Tinnitus with Stoicism

  1. John Robin says:

    As a fellow sufferer, though not as severely, I can agree that a stoic attitude has benefited me often in dealing with tinnitus. I came back to stoicism when the only book I had with me was Seneca’s Letters after being admitted to hospital with chest pain. Reading the letters while waiting for test results gave me a more resilient state of mind and more peace.

  2. John Robin: I’m pleased you found similar help to me. I think tinnitus is far more widespread than is recognised. The research into it is less than enthusiastic as it does not have potential to attract earnings from drugs. I read some research which suggested that there are 5 million people with tinnitus in the UK.
    I know people with tinnitus and I no longer suggest reading the Stoics. The sad fact is that they do not read books at all and, as one of them said to me, “I tried reading that book and I couldn’t make head not tail of it.” The book was Seneca’s “Letters from a Stoic.” When I lived in a city I went to a discussion group of tinnitus sufferers. This was wholly depressing as all they did was complain about their various problems as a result of tinnitus. High on the list was the destructive effect on their families and the complaint that, “they don’t understand.” That is the only time I ever attended a group.
    The best verbal advice I ever got was from a psychologist who had tinnitus himself. I was in my early days and he said, “You won’t believe this now. But get your thinking sorted and you will find ‘Tinnitus is no big deal.” He was right.
    Good luck.

  3. Angela Gilmour says:

    I had a tiny fruit fly in my ear a few weeks ago – my daughter managed to flush it out but it was not a pleasant experience but similar to what you experience each day. I have slept badly all my life and the effects of a sleepless night affects your whole body – headaches, nausea, hot flushes and lack of balance as well as the overwhelming tiredness. The stoic meditation audios recorded by Donald Robinson have vastly improved my sleep pattens.
    Your experience of self help forums have been similar to mine – you have to have the inner desire to overcome your challenges and many people prefer to be a martyr than a functioning member of society so sad as they condem themselves and those around them to a life of unhappiness.
    We are dealt are cards in life and have to play them to the best of our ability – stoicism certainly helps. Thank you for your sharing!

  4. @Angela Gilmour: You sum up well my one experience of a self help forum. I’m afraid the sense I had of the group was one of martyrdom which seemed to confer a feeling of righteous suffering. I asked my family, including children who will join us at Christmas, not to mention tinnitus.
    In my early days I counted how many days I could get through without mentioning my condition to my supportive and understanding wife. Now tinnitus is seldom mentioned. The condition can be definitely handled in a positive way. It does not have to ruin the life of a family. Sadly, it often does. Thanks for your comments.

  5. Sergio says:

    Denis, your article was GOLD. Thank you. I have had T since April this year, it’s been hell. I have discovered philosophy and especially Stoicism only a few weeks ago, and since then I have completely been absorbed in it. As you wrote, it truly is the only game in town for people dealing with such a problem. I disagree about T being ‘common’ and ‘widespread’. I have serious doubts about that, although that what everybody seems to say, including all these self-proclaimed experts. I have never met anybody with T in the 4 decades of my life. I have never heard of anyone complaining, anywhere, of PERSISTENT ringing in the ear. I think this ‘it’s common’ rubbish is said by doctors who mean either OCCASIONAL tinnitus or a form of T that is light, bearable, etc. But SEVERE tinnitus is different. Anyone knows the difference between hearing a ‘normal’ noise, (say, falling rain) and hearing a LOUD, aggressive and unpleasant noise (such as a slamming door!) they aren’t one and the same! yet all these ‘experts’ talk as if there’s no difference! They are useless. In your article, I was reading about that Christmas you spent with your family. You knew life had changed for you. I don’t even have family at all, my mom suddenly died young many years ago, the blow of which I am still dealing with, and my family has broken up since then, although we all love each other. As I was imagining you with your family and being sad because of this major change in your life, I felt like I wanted to scream. I have been dealing with T entirely on my own, doctors and psychologists are just either pathetic, or amusing, I don’t expect to receive miracles, but most of these people don’t understand anything. So be it. I don’t really care about them anymore, it’s useless to beat a dead horse. Fortunately, philosophy is actually doing a lot for me. It’s fortifying my mind. This is the only game in town for me too.
    I will read very attentively all the material you mentioned. I hope you will write more articles. In the end, one of the biggest challenges in life is dealing with chronic illness. I have been plagued by that for most of my life, and can certainly say that tinnitus is the worst thing that ever happened to me as regard health. I’d rather walk on crutches for the rest of my life. Thank you and be well.

  6. Steve says:

    Here’s a recent and inspiring interview with Denis W. who found relief from chronic Tinnitus using mindfulness and Stoicism. Hope you find it valuable on your own journey –>

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