Accepting My Hearing Loss Somehow Changed Everything

As it turns out, there’s a very real connection between our hearing and our mental health.
Illustration:Jianan Liu/HuffPost; Photo:Getty Images

“I can actually see the shapes of the leaves on the trees!” I exclaimed to my doctor while gazing out the window. I was 12 years old and just got my first pair of glasses. My vision had been impaired long enough for me to not realize what I was missing.

The same thing happened to me when I got my hearing aids — at 52.

“What did he say?” became a frequent question to my husband while on our latest Netflix binge. After a few weeks of this, he suggested that I get my hearing checked.

“I’m only 52,” I scoffed. “I can hear just fine.”

But then, one night, we were out on our patio and he asked, “Do you hear those frogs chirping?” They were pretty loud, apparently. I replied with a meek “no.” So with swallowed pride and a lot of trepidation, I made an appointment to see an audiologist the next day.

I sat down for a hearing test in a little sound booth where my consultant could see me lift my hand upon hearing a frequency. Afterward, she showed me the computer curve of my hearing results. The curve displayed mild hearing loss. “So these are the hearing aids,” the associate said, shoving a box of small, plastic hearing aids in my face.

“Wait, what? Aren’t we going to go over my options?” I wondered. Nope, it was straight to hearing aids. Enter the dagger to my aging heart.

Yes, I felt embarrassed and stopped wearing my hair up so that I could hide my new ear candy, but I was surprised and delighted by the calm I felt just a few days in. I knew something was different when I found myself not cursing at my family in my head for leaving the house a mess. It was suddenly easier to distinguish talking from any background noise, be it the TV or the hum of traffic. I felt more peaceful. I wasn’t sweating the small stuff anymore.

I took a quick mental inventory of why I could be feeling this lack of angst. The only difference, I realized, was that I’d worn my hearing aids over the past few days. For years, I had been taking selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors — medications commonly known as SSRIs — for generalized anxiety, and I thought that was well under control. But there was a whole other layer hanging over me that I wasn’t aware of. And it didn’t hit me until that moment: It was because I couldn’t hear well. As it turns out, there’s a very real connection between our hearing and our mental health.

The newfound feeling of calm could be attributed to my brain no longer busying itself with what it couldn’t hear, according to Dr. Frank Lin, a professor of otolaryngology, medicine, mental health and epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The National Council on Aging refers to this as cognitive strain, noting that people with various levels of hearing loss might experience “mental strain and fatigue from the extra effort constantly required to function with reduced hearing.”

Apparently, when you’re concentrating so hard to fill in the gaps of what your hearing misses, or working to understand unclear speech just to keep up with a conversation, fear and frustration can set in. It became so obvious to me that my anxiety was being stoked because of this.

“There’s something called ‘listening effort.’ It’s how, with hearing loss, you strain to listen and understand,” says Michael Harvey, a psychologist, author and expert in the psychosocial aspects of hearing loss. “You may even get a headache or a stomachache. It’s work. Suddenly, with augmented hearing, people can experience a relaxation they never thought they could feel.”

Intrigued by what the experts told me, I dug into a little research. Some findings show that as hearing loss progresses, so can anxiety. In one study of older, community-dwelling adults, mild hearing impairment was linked to a 32% greater chance of having anxiety. A more significant hearing impairment was found to increase that chance to 59%. It seemed that I was onto something.

In fact, unaddressed hearing loss has been associated with an increase in the risk of dementia, according to a small but revealing study from Lin and his colleagues.

“One of the main mechanisms we think links hearing with the risk of dementia is if you can’t hear very well, your brain receives a garbled auditory signal,” he tells me. “Your brain is constantly having to reallocate resources to help with hearing. And that comes at the expense of those resources that otherwise could have been used to help buffer against and protect the brain from other known pathologies, like Alzheimer’s disease.”

Lin’s ongoing research aims to show people just how important hearing is to overall health — and our conversation made me wonder why we don’t typically get our hearing checked each year, like we do with our eyes and teeth.

In the first few weeks after addressing my hearing loss, I was amazed at how much of a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I was less worried. I felt more capable of tackling whatever struggles came up. I tend to have pretty dramatic reactions to things and can go from 0 to 60 faster than a race car — but nowadays I take my time.

Those who manage anxiety know that it can spike when triggered. Because I’m now aware of the ways in which anxiety and my hearing are so intricately intertwined, I’m able to avoid so many triggers. I wait to respond instead of blurting out my opinion, which, as you can imagine, has improved all of my relationships, including my marriage. I can now be a thermostat for my child when she gets hotheaded. All of this outweighs the fear and embarrassment that society has tacked on to aging.

Needing hearing aids was a blow to my ego, but they also opened up a new world to me — one where I am more present and sure of myself. I’m a better partner and mother, too. And for anyone else who’s feeling the unfortunate stigma around hearing loss, seek support. I hope my message comes through loud and clear: You’re not lesser-than just because you get a little ear candy.

Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

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