Hearing accentuates every aspect of our lives. As we breathe deeply during our Spring outdoor walks, the sounds of a red-winged blackbird bursting into song and a woodpecker making that distinctive staccato knock.
With each step, our hearing also gives us information to keep us safe. We jump to a safe space the moment we hear a tire screech, a siren wail or a dog growl.
As we return to the workplace, we listen for vital insights in whispers, sarcastic humor, our colleagues’ moods in their tone of voice, and our supervisors’ instructions to stay rewarded and fulfilled in our work.
What happens when we lose our ability to listen intently; to hear conversations or the world around us clearly; to react to the subtle nuances of communication?
The Science of Hearing
We often forget that science underpins these essential signals. Sound is produced when an object vibrates the air around it. It’s a wave that travels through space. The vibration produces a sound. Higher frequency sounds have a higher pitch, like a flute or a bird chirping, while lower frequency sounds have a lower pitch, think a tuba or a bass singer.
With such basic nature at work, any negative change in hearing, including simply having trouble hearing clearly, can have a serious impact on your mental health and emotional well-being. Many people first notice softer-than-normal sounds in one ear. Or they may have trouble hearing a phone conversation with one ear.
Am I losing my edge? Aging less than gracefully? On the path to a health crisis? It’s easy to let our thoughts run wild.
Though we instinctively — and correctly — know that we should see a doctor, there’s a catch. It’s called “hidden hearing loss” and hearing tests aren’t designed to catch it. Ordinary hearing loss stems from damage to the hair cells or the nerve. Hidden hearing loss often arises because of a loss of synapses in between. The signal is incomplete in sending information we need to interpret words.
The Mental Impact
Hearing loss is one of the most prevalent chronic conditions in the United States. It’s the third most common chronic physical condition, and is twice as prevalent as diabetes or cancer, according to the National Health Interview Survey.
The uncertainty and fear of what might come can pose yet another traumatic challenge. Yet it’s important to focus on what you know, experts say, even if it’s upsetting. So, watch for a sense that your hearing is impaired, even if you’ve passed a hearing test. Are you misunderstanding people? Becoming easily distracted in noisy places?
It’s normal to doubt yourself in these circumstances and natural to want to retreat to a safe space. After all, we’ve built our pandemic cocoon — and it’s a great hiding place if we let it be. We’ve learned to adapt — perhaps too well — to isolation. Why not let it continue?
A study by The National Council on the Aging showed every decibel drop in perception in people under 70 increases the odds of becoming severely lonely by 7 percent. And loneliness itself can set off a series of serious health issues, including dementia and depression, a study published in a JAMA publication showed.
The National Council on the Aging’s survey of 2,300 hearing impaired adults age 50 and older found that those with untreated hearing loss were more likely to report depression, anxiety, and paranoia and were less likely to participate in organized social activities, compared to those who sought medical help.
How do you know if you’ve drifted down this path? The results differ with each person, but they all interfere with normal daily life. Do you have fatigue, difficulty concentrating, a loss of appetite or a loss of interest in hobbies or spending time with others?
Take control back by contacting your doctor, or at least, tell a loved one that you’re struggling to hear clearly.
How to Cope
How can you battle these unsettling feelings?
- Don’t panic. It’s natural to be concerned when you realize you have trouble hearing, especially in crowded places. Leaping to the worst possible conclusion wastes time and energy.
- Take a breath. First things first, make an appointment with your physician to get your hearing checked. Ask for an in-depth review, including the prospect of hidden hearing loss.
- Reach out to ask friends, family and social-media groups to learn of others’ experiences, medical references and moral support. You may be surprised how many people have had similar experiences or know others who have.
- Write about your feelings and observations, and if necessary, talk with a therapist.
- Keep in touch with your social and professional networks as you work through the situation. Adjust short-term communication styles to stay on top of and even advance your skills.
- Find technology devices that can help. Hearing loss, at any stage, can be helped to allow you to live fully and to enjoy the moments you feel you’ve been missing out on.